I then experienced something else I hadn’t before: I became a taskmaster to two Iatvi the size of trees; I still don’t know how creatures such as they had the boundless energy they did. Bouncing back and forth around Ian’s room, both Aaron and Chris dove down to the ground and jumped up and down to get the room into order, all with me seated in the center of the room on the chair. Within half an hour, Ian’s room was fairly spotless, and they mercifully let me leave the room as Aaron hauled in the vacuum to suck away the crumbs and dust.
I sat in the kitchen with Chris at my side, watching the sound of the angry machine as Aaron yanked the cord further into the room every few moments. I held onto my remaining crutch as the boy beside me examined what remained of the other. Try as I might, I could not find the screws and bolts that held the lower center bar, so they were no doubt in the innards of the vacuum by then.
“I hope Uncle James can fix it. Are you sad?”
“A little,” I said. “But I’m sure he can.”
“Aaron won’t get in trouble from Uncle James, will he?”
“Well? What am I going to tell him? I couldn’t bend it like that on my own.”
“I dunno, tell him it, uh… that it fell into a-ah-ah-AH!”
When his voice peaked, I almost shut my ears from the volume. Chris had reared up as if someone had put ice down his back.
“Eee! It tickles!”
Before I could ask, I saw a curly-haired boy emerge above Chris’s shoulder. Juni. Grasping the Iatvi by the shirt, the Iatili’s face curled in concentration as it seemed that the surface upon which he climbed actively resisted his every handhold. With calculated intent and amusement (or was it vengeance?), Juni reached his hand to the side of Chris’s neck and flexed his fingers. Chris immediately giggled and scrunched his neck against it. Juni then used the distraction to grab hold of Chris’s blond hair and continue climbing upwards.
“Get down from there!” I shouted. He ignored me. Chris continued to giggle. No help from him.
“Ot Iatvi ne vah… kaldtol!” Juni grunted, emerging upon the top of Chris’s head and sitting down. “Ot Iatvi vah kanisi!”
This Iatvi isn’t too strong. This Iatvi is a little baby.
“Neh vah dakasi,” I shouted up at him. “Angah lai krunikar lia cadani!”
You’re not right. He can smash you in a second!
“What are you saying?” Chris laughed, lifting his hands up to surround the boy atop his head.
“No, kani!” Juni said, his head swiveling back and forth with his arms outstretched in both offending directions. “Don’t… don’t touch me!”
“It’s a little late for that, Juni,” I said with concern. “Chris, please don’t hurt him. Be very gentle!”
Chris paused, his hands mere inches from engulfing the teenager in his hair.
“Oh…” the boy paused. “I thought it was Charsi.”
“No, Chris, she’s still very afraid of you. But Juni is a bit of a thrillseeker.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means he likes to climb up to places he shouldn’t.”
“Lenn!” Juni said, his voice cracking. “Ile lai neh ke vudah!”
“What did he say?”
“I’m not sure,” I lied with a slight upswing in my throaty voice. “But I’m pretty sure he shouldn’t be asking me for help.”
Chris’s hands encompassed the Iatili, his thumbs and forefingers pinching playfully, no doubt hoping to grab something. Juni let out a cry, and from my perspective, it appeared as though he was indeed trying to protect himself from ten wiggling digits. But it was no use. The Iatvi’s hands grasped him around his chest, and down he came, tugging and thrashing about. Juni didn’t scream, but he did tell the boy to release him, threatening him with several words a boy his age should not say… all in Iatnasi, fortunately.
“You talk funny,” Chris said, his booming voice able to drown out Juni’s cursings. Just as he had with me, he lightly swung Juni’s thrashing legs back and forth. And when it seemed Juni would succeed and slip through Chris’s hands to freedom, Chris simply recaptured him by grabbing hold of his leg and waist as if he were some puppet… upside down. He even rotated Juni around to look him in the face, despite the fact that he held onto something as flexible and kicking as a flopping worm.
“Juni, calm down!” I said. “Relax! Like you said, vah kanisi. If you speak English, he’ll do what you say.”
Juni slightly slowed his struggling as his face became bright red, looking up (or down) at Chris’s bright and curious face.
“Neh janeris… er, you won’t… you won’t eat me, will you?”
I laughed out loud, as did Chris.
“No way! That would be yucky!”
“But… but your teeth are so… sharp and white…”
Chris appeared puzzled.
“Oh, stop fooling around,” I said. “They’re just regular teeth. You had the same when you were little.”
Chris brought Juni close and gave a wide smile. Of course, this made Juni shout in horror.
“Be careful with him, Chris, please,” I said, raising my voice above Juni’s. Chris nodded at me and held Juni outstretched in his hands.
“Why… are… Iatvi so…” Juni growled, pushing and shoving against the fingers that held his middle. At last, he dangled loose and gave up. “…ugh! Neh unti! I should be stronger than a baby!”
“I’m not a baby.”
“But you have a face like a baby,” he said, sounding more dejected than accusing. “And you’re the smallest Iatvi I’ve seen…”
“Then you haven’t seen a real baby,” Chris said. “They’re really small. Small like Lenn.”
Juni was obviously uncomfortable in more ways than one.
“Can you… put me down, please?” he asked weakly.
Chris pouted a bit.
“But I want to hold you.”
I laughed, and they both looked at me.
“Put him back on your head, Chris,” I told him, pointing to my own. “I want to see him climb back down.”
“But I don’t want…” Juni whispered. “Uh… Uhh, if, i-if you promise not to grab me again, kanisi.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It, uh… it means…”
“I’ll tell you later, Chris,” I said, not wanting to push the ‘baby’ language. “Go ahead, put him up there.”
Chris gave a great big nod, and placed the Iatili back in his hair like a crown. He was already laughing when he released his grip on Juni, so when Juni swung himself down by the long blond hair and crawled hold-by-hold to the floor, he giggled and squirmed as Juni descended.
“Do it again! Do it again!” Chris said cheerfully as Juni joined me. Before I could say anything, Juni replied, his breathing a bit heavy as he leaned upon his knees.
“I… I can’t. Dev… er, sorry.”
“Just wanted to see if you were stronger than a five-year old Iatvi, huh Juni?”
“Five and a half,” Chris said, holding up the subsequent fingers (and bent finger).
“Uh-huh. Climbing Iatvi is hard. Xande says I shouldn’t do it, but… lodsatol. I think it’s fun. Eliza is real tall, and I’ve only reached the top of her head once without seeing me.”
“Without seeing you? Or feeling you?” I stared at him. “How did you do that?”
“She was wearing a… a coat, sia,” he said.
“She got mad at you, didn’t she?”
“Soooo mad,” Juni said with a big grin on his face.
A giant finger descended and gently tapped Juni on the shoulder. The teenager swung around hard, expecting the worst. Instead, an extended hand hovered in front of him. Above that was a surprisingly sensitive expression.
“I’m sorry I scared you and Charsi. I’m going to be nice to you.”
Juni stood there staring at the giant boy for a moment before realizing that Chris seemed sincere. He didn’t lift his hand so much as limply hang it forwards, and Chris took it in between his thumb and forefinger.
“Um…” Juni whispered. “I’m… I’m okay, but… say sorry to Charsi. She was crying.”
“Uh-huh. I will.”
Juni took a seat on the floor beside me, not as wary of the young ka as I thought he might be. His nerves returned, however (and mine), when a very loud click-click-clank emerged from Ian’s room, followed by the vacuum squealing to a halt.
“Uh-oh,” came the quick reply.
“What happened?” Chris shouted.
There was a pause.
“I… I think I sucked up a lego. Or… a few.”
Juni and I waited as we heard a ker-thunk, and then a click, followed by the loudest clank-clank-clank I’d ever heard. All three of us in the kitchen shut our ears at the noise. It only lasted a moment, however, but a shout from Ian’s room outlasted it.
“Ah…” Aaron said. “I don’t think I can vacuum anymore.”
“You broke the vacuum?” Chris nearly laughed.
“Uhh…” Aaron continued. “I don’t think it’s broken, exactly, but…”
After a moment, we all heard the vacuum being placed on the ground, and Aaron stepped out into the hallway with a frustrated look.
“That’s why I hate vacuuming my…“
Juni and Aaron locked eyes. My young Iatili friend slid closer to me as Aaron slowly approached. Aaron didn’t remain on his feet long; he knelt down on his arms and knees, remaining on the carpet out of his arm’s reach of us.
“Hi Juni,” Aaron asked quietly. “Are you… okay? Is Charsi okay too?”
I patted the boy on the back as he gathered his courage.
“You didn’t hurt me. But you could have hurt my sister, and you made her cry. Don’t do that again.”
“I won’t, I promise,” Aaron said with a nod. “I didn’t know what I did until I did it… er, that doesn’t make sense. I mean, it was wrong what I did. But it was worse that I fought with Chris. I really could have hurt Lenn. Can I apologize to Charsi?”
“No,” Juni said flatly. “Don’t bother her.”
“But what if I just sat in front of the door?” He paused for a moment. “I won’t open it, and she doesn’t have to say anything back. I just want to talk to her.”
Juni nearly shook his head, but instead he looked at me.
“That would be okay, wouldn’t it?” I asked him.
“Vah kal odanara ysde…” Juni said to me.
He’s going to scare her again…
I shrugged. Worry filled Aaron’s deep-green eyes as his gazed jumped across both of us. I turned back to Aaron and pointed at him.
“We’ll sit right here. Don’t open the door. Go sit and say what you want to say.”
Aaron slowly stood to his feet and strode past us, giving Juni and I a look before sitting himself down in front of the guest room door. We three watched him.
“Um…” Aaron said, lightly clearing his throat. He gently knocked on the door. “Charsi?”
I didn’t hear anything. I’m sure no one else could either.
“I promise I won’t open the door, I just wanted to say, um… that I’m sorry I picked you up and scared you so bad. It was wrong. And I feel horrible. You needed someone to protect you, and I did the opposite.”
I studied his posture as he searched for the right words to come into his mind. He didn’t appear confident in the least, but he didn’t look over at me for guidance. He simply stared at the door as he spoke.
“I think it’s really cool that you live with Eliza. She’s my favorite cousin. Oh, except for Ian, I guess. I wish I knew you and Juni a long time ago, maybe we would be friends. I mean, unless you still want to be friends.” He paused for a moment. “I get it if you don’t. I just don’t want you to think I don’t care. I do. What I did wasn’t right. And it isn’t Lenn telling me to say these things, I really care. I don’t know you and Juni really well, but… we’re family now, right?”
I looked at Juni. He appeared apprehensive, of course. But he didn’t react.
“It’s my job to protect you,” Aaron said, almost whispering at the door. “And I didn’t. I’m sorry for making you cry. I’m sorry for fighting with Chris in front of you. I promise it won’t happen again.”
“If Chris and I forget, I’ll have Juni stab us with a needle or something.”
Aaron continued to gently talk to the guest room door as I turned my attention to the boys that sat beside me.
“Huh?” Juni replied, a bit dumbfounded. “What did he say?”
“Angah lai fordir kani Iatvi seli cardelsa,” I said. “Li damaen.”
You can stab the boys with a needle if they fight.
Juni’s eyes went wide.
A grin then appeared, and he quietly laughed.
“Huh,” he said next. “Li namenaren, wandaran. Ven lunesi.”
If they’re sure, I will. They’re strange.
“Of course they’re strange,” I said. “They’re human.”
“Don’t stab me,” Chris said softly, pulling himself away from us. “I won’t fight. I promise.”
“It’s just a joke, Chris. Don’t worry. We’re not that mean.”
Chris processed the thought and gave us a huge smile.
“I go to school,” Aaron said. “Is Lenn gonna teach you? That would be so cool. I don’t know much, but maybe I could help. I know Ian does. I’m scared for Ian, but I know he’ll be all right with you and everybody here. I… feel bad that I broke Lenn’s crutch. I’ll try to help him, but I think you and Juni are probably better at it than me.”
He suddenly popped up.
“Oh! Charsi, Chris wants to bring you some candy next time we come over. I don’t know what I can bring. I don’t really know what girls like. But I’ll find something.”
“Call Eliza and she’ll know,” I said to him.
“Yeah, I’ll call Eliza!” Aaron said, a bit louder so the little girl could hear through the door. “I hope you can forgive me. I guess I’ll, um… I hope I can see you later?”
Everything was quiet inside.
“Okay, I’m gonna go now. Mom wanted us home before noon.” He turned around. “What time is it?”
I looked around, and couldn’t see anything. Chris slid himself effortlessly on the wood floor and spotted a clock, probably the oven numbers.
“10:42,” Chris said.
“It may be a good idea for you to go home a bit early. I know you might not want to, but we don’t know when Ian is going to be home.” I folded my arms. “Do you think your parents or other family will come to see him?”
“I bet Mom and Dad want to.” He chuckled. “They talk a lot.”
“Can we come play later?” Chris asked.
“Not today,” Aaron said before me. “If we come with Mom and Dad, they’re gonna hear us and Lenn and Juni. We’ve gotta keep them a secret.”
“Oh,” Chris said with a nod. “Yup.”
“If you do come over,” I said. “Just make sure no one comes in the guest room.”
A thought arose in my head.
“But don’t look like you’re guarding the guest room. Just be natural and don’t come in.”
Aaron laughed at me.
“We’ll keep it on the down-low.”
I tilted my head. I hadn’t heard that phrase before. But I could ask later.
As Juni and I returned to the guest room after the boys left, we climbed up to the top of the bed to find a very pensive Charsi. Her tears had dried, and it was apparent that she had much to consider. Juni asked her how she was, and Charsi responded with a single word. Beyond this, she did not speak. After a moment, she climbed to the edge of the bed’s folded blanket, crawled beneath to the pillow below, and appeared to fall asleep. I didn’t have the heart to check if she had.
Juni, still restless, explored every inch of the guest room, climbing up and down the bed sheets until he wore himself out. When he discovered that the television controller was sitting upon the side table, he flung himself from the bed and turned it on by pressing his foot upon the power button. I told him he could only watch as long as we knew we were alone in the house, and he assured me he did this at Eliza’s all the time. He soon discovered, much to his dismay, that this television’s collection of shows were limited compared to Ian’s or the downstairs. So he settled for the least uninteresting ‘channel’ (as he called it): a sporting match of something called ‘golf’.
The red-colored time under the television red somewhere around 4:30 what we heard the front door open. That was our signal to hide. All three of us descended from the bed and hid ourselves in the dark under the bed and between it and the side table. Nothing appeared to be approaching us. We heard Iatvi talking, with voices that we did not recognize. We were nervous at first, especially since we heard a few young voices along with the older. But no great beings entered the room until all voices ceased.
This is not to say that being in the dim shadow wasn’t incredibly boring. Charsi continued her silence, sitting against the wall. I sat next to her with my remaining crutch beside me on the floor. And Juni chewed on his nails and tried to sit still, at first. Soon, he was bouncing up and down, climbing the bed sheets again. I scolded him as he approached the top. So, since he couldn’t go up, he decided to go side to side, as far as I allowed him.
Charsi and I fell asleep until the late afternoon. I’m not sure what Juni decided to do during the time. I woke to realize that Charsi had rested her head against my shoulder. As I woke, so did she. She realized what she had done and tried to apologize. I just fluffed her hair and laughed. I looked over, and Juni had curled up in the darkness beneath the bed.
It was soon after we woke up that we heard footsteps. To our horror, the guest room door parted.
“Kids?” said a voice.
“Oh,” I whispered. “Hi James.”
After a few seconds, I hauled myself up to the surface, followed by Jun and Sisi. James had knelt down before the bed, no doubt helping the kids not be as nervous when being so close to the giant Iatvi.
James looked very tired. I rarely saw him wear casual clothing. This time, it added to the exhaustion I saw in his face.
“How are you all?”
“I’m fine!” Juni said. Charsi nodded in agreement.
“How is Ian?” I asked. “Please tell me he’ll be all right. Aaron said that boy damaged Ian’s brain. Is that true?”
“Yes, that’s true,” James said, with no anger in his voice. “You can recover from a concussion with time, though. Ian will need a lot of rest.”
“I’m going to take care of him, James,” I said. “I’ll sit right next to him, and I’ll be his messenger. Whatever he needs, I’ll make sure he gets it. Er, with your help, of course. And Catherine.”
“Us too,” Charsi said, speaking for the first time since morning. “As long as we’re here.”
“Ian is lucky to have a big brother like you, Lenn,” James said. “And cousins, right Charsi? And Juni?”
“Cousins…” Charsi said. “I like it.”
“Me too,” Juni said with a smile.
“Well, I need some rest,” James said. “If you don’t mind, I need a shower and then a very long nap.”
“How long did you stay up with Ian?” I asked.
“As long as I could. The hospital staff took good care of him, though. It’s that the bedding at the hospital was not very comfortable.”
“Oh,” I mumbled with a nod. “I see.”
“Catherine is in the shower now,” James said. “She will come take care of you as soon as she’s done. Try to think of what you would like to eat and drink, and I’m sure she can get it for you. If we have it, of course.”
“Will you have more family visiting tonight?” I took a seat on the bed, unable to commit more pressure on my leg. “Would I be able to sit next to Ian and watch over him?”
“I think we’re in the clear for now,” James said. “But Ian is filled with antibiotics and pain medication. I don’t think he’ll be waking up until tomorrow. Maybe longer.”
“I’d still like to make sure he’s okay.”
James offered me a soft smile.
“Sure, Lenn,” he replied. “I wouldn’t expect any less from you. He did the same for you, you know.”
“I know it,” I said softly. “I have to repay him.”
“We’ll stay in here,” Charsi said, touching my shoulder. “Until you come get us.”
Juni scratched his elbow.
“Huh? We will?”
“Sia,” she said. “Lenn knows how to be quiet. You don’t. And I won’t be much help either.”
Juni made a grunt.
Charsi rolled her eyes but said nothing.
“Thanks, you two,” I said. “I’ll come back in the morning. Catherine will be here to help.”
“Take care of yourself first, Lenn,” James said. “Please. Eat something before you go.”
I cast my eyes down at the bed.
“I’m not hungry,” I answered honestly. “I’ll be fine.”
“Don’t forget, kani,” James said, tapping the bed right in front of me with a burly finger. I’d taught him the word, but never thought he would use it against me. “I’m the doctor here. You’ll tell me if anything serious happens?”
“Kani, huh?” I said with a grin. “No worries. That’s my job.”
I gently opened the door in the dark, entering Ian’s room in silence. The boy’s usual snoring had been replaced with shallow breathing. Leaning on my crutch, it only took me a moment to cross the room, and only a moment more to abandon my crutch and climb up the dark-blue blanket to the top.
I followed the outline of the blanket’s edge despite blindness. I then stumbled upon something, and I steadied myself to feel the tight tendons and warm skin of a prone human hand beneath my own. I thought the boy might wake from the touch as I quickly got back to my feet. I don’t believe he did, but his breathing changed; there was no way to tell if his eyes had opened.
I continued towards his head. Around nearly the entirety of his face and his right eye, cotton wraps held his healing bones in place. If I hadn’t been told the specifics of his injuries, I might have guessed the bandages around his head held all of his skull together and not just his cheekbone.
“Ian,” I sighed with sadness in my heart. Again I wondered what kind of Iatvi would hurt my little brother like this.
With Ian’s head laid upon his pillow and close to me, I did my best not to make noise. Instead, I simply crawled up the pillow and took a seat. The air beside him was drowsy and warm, but I was determined not to fall asleep. After all, it was my duty to look after him.
For about half an hour (according to the electric light that kept time), I sat in silence, listening to Ian’s breathing. This close to him, he smelled like week-old soap, no doubt from the last time Ian had bathed before it all. My eyes became accustomed to the room slowly, and I discovered more about his bandages as they adjusted: thin cotton rounded beneath his chin and forehead, and thick pads covered his face from the right side of Ian’s hairline down to the level of his mouth. His left eye and nose were uncovered, of course. I couldn’t keep away a gnawing feeling of depression in my gut from watching Ian. I wanted to talk to him, but I knew it was best to leave him be. Catherine had said his medicine made him sleepy, so there probably wasn’t anything I could do to wake him anyway.
I cleared my throat as quietly as I could. I needed water, but I didn’t think it was worth it to return all the way to the guest room just for that. I didn’t notice anything had changed until I heard the blankets slide and felt Ian’s entire form fall sideways towards me. From that change, his hand rose and advanced on me.
I pulled myself backwards to avoid its grip. But the hand descended, Ian’s thumb pressing into my side and his fingers wrapping around my waist. For a moment, it simply held me in place, and I dared not move.
“Hi Lenn,” Ian whispered.
I looked sideways in slight panic and saw Ian’s left eye opened and looking at me. As he said my name, it sounded as though something restricted his mouth.
“Hah,” I said with a chuckle, placing my hands upon the top of Ian’s finger. “You scared me there. I thought you might shove me off the bed.”
“Huh-uh,” he said with a shake of his head.
“How are you feeling?” I asked. “Are you in pain?”
“Huh-uh,” he repeated. “I can’t talk well. I’m not s’post open my jaw.”
“I can understand you.”
For a moment, he remained silent.
“I left you and everybody alone,” he said.
“We’re all fine. We’re all tougher than we look, remember?”
Ian’s face appeared vacant.
“Don’t you worry,” I said. “You looked after me, so I’m looking after you. Whatever you need, I’ll go to Catherine and tell her. And promise me you’re going to tell me, I’m not going to hurt myself limping around. I even took my bandages off. See?”
I lowered my shirt collar and showed Ian my scar. I felt it myself, feeling the thickened healed skin that crossed my neck.
“Nice,” he whispered.
“I’m glad that you’re okay. I cried when Catherine told me what happened, you know.”
“I thought I’d lost my little brother. I felt useless, just like always. But I refuse to be useless anymore.”
I saw the boy nod, feeling his fingers tighten and loosen around me.
“I’m really happy you’re here.”
“I’m glad you’re happy.”
“I’m glad that… you’re glad.”
I got the not-so-slight impression at that moment that he might not have been fully awake. I held in a laugh.
“Hey, you said something over the phone when you were in the hospital. Do you remember what you said?”
“Hmm,” he hummed. “Huh-uh.”
“Catherine told me you might not remember. You told me you loved me. Is that true?”
“I said that?”
I wasn’t sure if he was pensive or embarrassed. Or just out of it.
“I guess I meant it.”
“Well, I mean it back,” I said lightly. “Silly kani.”
I felt Ian’s fingers loosen.
“Get some sleep,” I told him. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.”
“You’re… not gonna sleep?”
“I’ll try not to. I’ve gotta be here for you, if you need something.”
Ian nodded in the affirmative.
“Where’s Charsijuni,” he slurred.
“They’re in the guest room. They’re excited to see you when you wake up.”
He didn’t say anything else. I waited a moment in case he would.
Nothing. I waited for five seconds.
“Ian, please let go of me.”
Nothing. I waited five more seconds.
At first I thought I might need to slide myself out lest he should dream about fistfighting.
“Ngh,” I whispered, digging my hands into the pillow and sliding backwards. My feet neared the space underneath Ian’s pinky when his hand opened and reclosed around my waist. I sighed. At first, his heat really made me sweat. But since I wasn’t going anywhere, even if that had been the plan, I relaxed, stretching my arms out.
I promised Ian I would stay up to watch him, but by the time the clock read 3:20 AM, I could no longer keep my eyes open. I “rested” them. But, naturally, they only stopped resting when the sun rose.
“Uh,” I whispered, waking to the morning light through the window. I wiped my eyes and attempted to lift myself up.
Ian’s hand hadn’t moved. I growled.
His heat and mine were more or less the same, equalizing during the night. But that wasn’t the point; I had to get out and drink water very soon.
Squirming my way out all at once hadn’t worked. So maybe moving each finger at a time would help. Prying Ian’s index finger out from my side, I bent it flat over my lap. I did the same with his middle finger and ring finger. His pinky, however, was out of my reach. Maybe it would be enough.
A little bit at a time, I slid myself out. A little more with each scoot backwards. This time, my bare feet slid under his pinky. So close…
Then Ian’s whole hand came sliding upwards on me again, grasping me as if nothing had changed. And tighter this time.
“Oof. Ian. Ian, wake up, please.”
Then the fingers really squeezed, lifting me off of Ian’s pillow and into the air.
Ian spun me around and held me with both hands as he flipped from his side to his back. From my vantage right over his chest, I could truly see the white gauze bandages wrapped around his head.
“Morning,” he said.
“You know you had your hand wrapped around me all night.”
“You make a good blanket,” I said. “But I wasn’t sure if you were going to squish me in your dreams or something.”
“Oh,” Ian said, a frown only visible over his left eye. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Your medicine really knocked you out,” I said. ”Didn’t it?”
“Uh-huh. I’m really tired.”
“I can tell. I couldn’t wake you back up last night.”
“I was awake last night?”
“Um. Yes, you were.”
His single eye swiveled around for a moment.
“Oh. Oh, yeah, yeah. I was. You told me about the hospital, that I said…”
Ian frowned a bit.
I lifted an eyebrow.
Ian transferred me into a single hand, and I lost breath as his thumb pressed into my stomach. The boy rubbed his eye and attempted to yawn.
“Oww,” he whispered. “That hurts.”
Ian’s eye closed as his hands gathered together around my chest again, allowing me to breathe.
“You remember, don’t you,” I said.
I watched him for a moment to see who would break first.
Ian’s eye blinked.
“You gonna say it again? Out loud and in person?”
His lips pouted.
“You know what.”
I saw Ian smile.
“Why?” Ian chuckled. “I don’t have to.”
“Yes, you do. I have to hear you say it and mean it.”
“What if I don’t?”
“Then I guess we’re not brothers.”
“I like this medicine you’re taking,” I said with a grin. “Maybe I’ll make you say more embarrassing things.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” the boy said, bringing me closer to his face. “I love you, okay? There. I said it.”
“Not so hard, huh?” I said, more serious. “You’re one of two people who’s ever said that to me.”
“Who was the first?”
“Aria, of course.”
For a moment, Ian looked towards his bedroom door. Then he attempted to lift himself to sit up with a groan.
“No, no no, down, kani, down,” I said, tapping his skin as he trembled. “You lay back down. You’re not moving today.”
“Ian, you listen to me. Ian, you-”
But Ian had already dropped his feet to the floor. He wore what I’d managed to glimpse him wearing the night before, a soft brown button-down shirt and his pajama bottoms.
“Where’s Juni and Charsi?” he asked, lifting me to his eye level.
“They’re probably still-”
“They’re waiting for you, hun,” said a voice from beyond Ian’s door. Catherine poked her head in. “Hello Lenn, you didn’t stay up all night, did you?”
“I tried to,” I said as Ian turned me around. “Didn’t last. Turns out Ian didn’t need anything but sleep.”
“My face hurts,” Ian said with a whine.
“I’ll bet. I don’t want you staying up for very long today, Ian. Let’s see if you can have one of your smoothies before you see everybody, okay?”
“Yeah.” He turned me back around to look at me. “I gotta go to the bathroom. Want me to carry you after?”
“No, I’ll be okay on the ground,” I said, pointing down. “I’ve got my crutch.”
“Huh? One? What happened to your other one?”
“Aaron stepped on it. And me, almost. He scared Charsi pretty bad.”
Ian’s eye sparked with anger and he grit through his teeth.
“What! He’s so stupid! Did you tell Mom? He doesn’t get to come over again until-”
“Ian, Ian,” I said, laying my hands against the tightening force around me. “Everything’s okay. I already talked to him, and he apologized to Charsi. Don’t be mad at him, he knows what he did was wrong. There’s no need to make it a big problem.”
Ian’s face softened into something distant.
“I knew something would happen if they were here without me. I have to protect you, Lenn.”
“I told Aaron that was his job, too. All three of you. You can talk about it when they come over, but promise me you won’t be angry at him. Promise me.”
“Fine. I promise.”
“Ian?” I heard from inside as I parted the door. A teenage face looked downwards. “Oh. Hi Lenn. Where’s Ian?”
“He’s coming. We still have water, right?”
“Is he wearing bandages?” Charsi asked.
“Yep, he is,” I said, leaning my crutch against the wall next to the bed. With some effort and an offered hand from Juni, I rose to the top fairly winded. I spoke in Iatnasi: “I will never get used to the size of human homes.”
“This house is enormous,” Juni said with a nod. “So much bigger than Eliza’s place. Sometimes Eliza’s home can feel small, but Ian’s home hasn’t yet.”
“I see the green grass outside, too,” Charsi said. “I would love to play out in the flowers. Do you think we can? It’s so beautiful out there.”
“You’ll have to ask Catherine,” I said, stepping over to the water bowl. I took several handfuls before wiping my chin.“I’ve gone out a few times. The Petersen’s have a giant fence that keeps other humans from looking in, but Ian has told me it still might be a bit dangerous.”
“I’m so tired of danger, danger, danger!” Juni said with a shout, flopping to the bed on his back. “I’m tired of Xande telling me to stay inside! I wish I could do what I want. Why aren’t other humans like Aunt Catherine and Ian and Uncle James and Eliza?”
“Would you want them to be like Aaron and Chris?” I said with a laugh.
“Well, no, but…”
“I wouldn’t mind if… they would be our friends too.”
Juni and I looked at Charsi.
“What? Sisi, you’re crazy. Yesterday you were wanting to go home, you were so scared. Now you want to see those giants again?”
“What made you change your mind?” I asked.
Charsi sat upon the bed and pulled her knees close, adjusting the ill-fitting shirt that only barely fell over her belly button.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I heard Aaron apologize to me. I didn’t have time to think about it before Ian’s whole family came and kept us in here. He’s only a year younger than me. Maybe I would have made the same mistake. And the little boy Chris really is just a little boy. Xande and Juni fight all the time, so it’s all really the same thing, isn’t it?”
“I mean, I guess,” Juni said.
“That makes you the five year old, you know,” I said, poking the boy’s shoulder.
“Oleeeeehm,” whined Juni, pushing my hand away.
Charsi laughed, and I smiled at her.
“I like hearing you laugh, Charsi. It’s easy to be afraid, but it hurts too much.”
“I’m tired of feeling in constant danger, just like Juni. I felt constant fear at home. I finally found a place where I feel safe. You deserve to feel that way, too.”
“I’d like that,” she said. “One place to call home is nice, but two is better.”
“Hey Sisi?” Juni asked, pointing at one of the two plastic bags a few inches away. “Can I have one of your fruit snacks?”
“No,” Charsi said quickly. “Eliza gave you a whole bag. Eat your own.”
“I only have the yellow ones left,” Juni groaned. “I hate those.”
“What else did Eliza pack for you in there?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ll show you,” Charsi said, crawling towards her plastic bag. Most of the bag held her bedding, neatly folded from the night before. She dove in and pulled out an even smaller plastic bag filled with interesting odds and ends. “Eliza gave us these when we started living with her.”
She produced a set of metal objects that fit perfectly in my hand about the size of a human trowel. I recognized what they were right away, but Charsi pointed them out to me as she handed me each.
“A fork, a knife, and a spoon. Eliza made us promise that we would clean them every time we used them. Then…”
Next was a folded white cloth, very thin and soft.
“This is my towel.”
“Easier to use than a human washcloth?”
“Sia,” she said. “Eliza’s washcloths are too thick. You have to bury yourself and roll around on them to get dry.”
I laughed, as did Juni.
“Rolling around is fun, though!”
“Unless you need to get dressed fast!”
Charsi set that aside, and pulled out tan fabric sewn together with black yarn.
“Sia, they aren’t good for walking in the rain, but they’re comfy when it gets cold.”
“Walking in the rain?” I asked. “I thought you never went outside.”
“Eliza doesn’t like it,” Juni said. “So… we don’t tell her. Xande takes us out some nights to practice sneaking around.”
“But never ever during the day,” Charsi said with a finger raised, as if she’d memorized the phrase. “You won’t tell her, will you?”
“I don’t know…” I said with a sing-song tone. “What kind of fruit snacks do you have in there?”
Charsi looked legitimately surprised.
“Yeah! And give me a red one!” Juni added, rolling to his side.
“No!” Charsi said with a laugh. “That’s not fair! You’re supposed to be nice, Lenn!”
I heard a soft bump behind the door, something the kids did not seem to notice. I looked over for a split second, and saw a shadow.
“I am super nice,” I said in English. “But when there’s candy involved, I don’t know if I can keep a secret.”
There was a long pause. Charsi suddenly became sullen.
“You’re not… actually going to tell her, are you?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “Don’t be silly.”
Juni and Charsi melted, thoroughly eased.
“But don’t tell Ian about our little secret,” I said. I watched the shadow. It crept forwards a bit.
“Huh? What secret?”
“You know,” I said, covering my mouth. “When we called Catherine two nights ago, when Ian was at the hospital.”
Jun and Sisi stared at me. The shadow quivered.
“Ian doesn’t remember what he said because of the medicine he took.” I pointed at my head. “Remember what he said to me? It was super silly.”
“Huh-uh,” Juni shook his head. “What? What did he say?”
“I don’t remember anything silly.”
“Sure you do,” I said, raising my voice just a bit. “It’s when he said that he-”
“Nee-nee no no no,” Ian said, emerging from the kitchen with a half-filled glass in one hand. Juni sat up with a jolt and Charsi took my arm. Ian’s one eye crashed on me. “No no, ha, um. Uh, I mean, um, hi Juni, hi Charsi.”
I gave him a wild grin. He noticed it immediately, and I haven’t yet seen a better mixture of emotions displayed on half a face.
“Ian,” Juni whispered, standing to his feet and pointing as Ian took a seat on the floor before us. “Your bandages!”
“Jun, don’t point,” Charsi said, parting the hair from her eyes. “It’s not polite.”
“I’m not,” he replied, taking a quick glance back before sitting back down. “I’m just surprised.”
“All wrapped up, aren’t you?” I asked.
“The doctor said I should be healed in six to eight weeks,” he said. “After that, I’ll be okay.”
“That’s it?” Charsi asked. “From having your cheek broken?”
“Uh-huh. That’s why the doctor put metal screws and a mesh in, to keep the bones in place.”
“Screws?” Juni asked. “Big screws?”
“Nah, really little ones,” Ian said, pinching his fingers close.
“What’s a mesh?” Charsi asked.
“It’s, uh… A small sheet of metal. With holes in it?”
“Are you going to have a really big cool-looking scar like I do?” I asked.
Ian shook his head and took a small swallow from the straw in his glass.
“They only did two cuts, one next to my eyebrow and one below my eyelid.”
All three of us on the bed pondered that for a moment.
“Wait, your eye?” Charsi asked. “What does your eye have to do with your cheekbone?”
Ian’s lips formed a small smile as he swallowed.
“That’s where they did the surgery, through those cuts.”
He pointed from where his eyebrow lay hidden behind the bandage and down to his cheek.
“Are you serious?” I asked. “How does a doctor know where to put the screws from up there? And how does he screw them in?”
“With a teeny-tiny screwdriver,” Charsi laughed.
“Yup,” Ian said. “Doctors use special cameras and x-rays to make surgery easier.”
“Um…” Ian scratched his nose. “It’s radiation that can look through your skin and see your bones.”
“Eliza had x-rays on her finger when it broke,” Charsi said. “I saw her skeleton in a picture. It was kinda scary.”
“Yeah,” Ian said. “I remember that. I can’t believe you guys were living with Eliza back then.”
“If only you knew what a good kid Ian is,” I said, patting Charsi’s back. “You could have been friends for a long time.”
“What are you drinking?” Juni asked. “It smells good.”
“Strawberry smoothie,” Ian said. “Want some?”
“Yeah,” Juni said with enthusiasm, standing to his feet again.
At first, Ian offered the straw to my young Iatili friend.
“Neh, straws are hard for me to use,” Juni said. He probably could have gotten his mouth around it, but he probably would have gagged using it.
“Uh. Oh, here, this will work.”
As Ian held his finger on the end on the plastic and gathered a small drop on the end of the straw for Juni to sample, Charsi shook her head.
“Jun never stops eating.”
“I don’t either,” I said. “But I’m used to having nothing to eat at all. Juni’s a teenager, and teenagers have bottomless stomachs. You’ll be there soon.”
Charsi scrunched her nose at this news.
“Mmm!” Juni said, wiping his face with his arm. “That’s really good!”
“There might be more left, if Mom didn’t wash the blender container-thingy yet.”
Ian frowned at me and stuck his tongue out (as well as he could) with an added ‘mleh’. I copied him, and Juni copied right after me.