(This is my favorite scene in the book. Enjoy the rough draft!)
The next day after Ian returned from school (a day of limited bullying, fortunately), he told me something I had suspected for a while: Aaron and Chris were both dying to see me again. Somehow, they had resisted telling Ian’s aunt and uncle why they wanted to visit Ian so badly. At least, Ian was fairly certain they had kept their mouths shut. It had been Catherine that had told them to hold off coming over so as not to frighten and exhaust me. When I learned this, I told Catherine at dinner that although it did make me a bit nervous, I wouldn’t mind having them say hello.
I don’t know what I expected.
The very next morning, I sat quietly reading something on Ian’s phone early in the morning when I heard a horrifying stampede. Before I could even wonder who or what had entered the front door of the house, the guest room door burst open and gave me a heart attack.
“Hi little boy!”
Then, before I could even think about retreating, a blond-haired monster with bright blue eyes barreled into the room. He didn’t even stop beside me. The blue-tan-ivory boulder crashed upon the mattress, sending me into the air. I came back down with a thud, and while not painful, the shock of the giant yatvi flattened my confidence. He sat cross-legged in front of me, immediately placing his head in his hands and excitedly eyeing me. He’d probably removed his shoes at the front door, and the nausea of bare human boy crashed upon me like a wave.
“Chris!” shouted Ian’s voice as he entered the room. “What are you doing! I told you not to hurt Lenn!”
Ian came and knelt in front of the bed at my side, and another familiar face met mine: Aaron, the red-haired and freckled cousin.
“Hi Lenn,” he said brightly with a quick wave.
“Vah sulm, Lenn?” Ian asked.
I have to admit, I was more than a little shaky. I stared at all three ka yatvi staring back at me, and cleared my throat.
“Uh, s-sia, sulmtol…” I whimpered. “Hello Aaron, hi Chris.”
“What are you talking?” Chris asked. “What’s shumptol?”
“It’s Lenn’s language,” Ian said. “He’s been teaching it to me. He said ‘really good’. I don’t think he means it, though.”
“Sure I do,” I replied quietly, rubbing an arm.
“You can talk,” Aaron said, resting his arms on the bed. “Chris and me were really worried you would die. But I knew Uncle James would fix you right up.”
“Codahke, Aaron,” I said. “I can’t imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t found me. How did you find me? Why were you playing near the river that day anyway?”
“It’s a shortcut to the park,” he said. “It’s not far from our house, and we go that way a lot. We don’t tell Mom about it, though, she’d yell at us. She doesn’t want us to drown, I guess.”
“Say that shumptol word again,” Chris said. “I wanna learn it too.”
“Shulm… tol,” Ian said slowly.
“Shool-hmm tole?” Chris rolled the sounds around in his mouth. “That’s hard to say.”
“Not really,” Aaron said. “Shulm-toll.”
“It is for me. Shoolm-tool.”
“I’ve taught a lot of kids how to speak English. But I’ve never taught yatvi how to speak Yatnasi.”
I got blank stares from the young cousins.
“Yatvi means human,” Ian explained. “And Yatnasi is his language.”
“So what’s he called?” Aaron asked, pointing at me. “He’s not a human, right? He’s way too small.”
“What’s the word?” Ian asked again, snapping his fingers. “Yat…? Sorry Lenn, I can never remember.”
Chris leaned towards me, tilting his head like a puppy dog.
“You say English words funny,” he said with a laugh.
“Hey, that’s not nice,” Aaron said, shoving his younger brother’s shoulder playfully. “That’s just his accent. I think it’s cool.”
“Can I pick you up?” Chris asked, thrusting his hands forwards. My eyes nearly bulged out of my head. Fortunately, Aaron and Ian quickly shoved Chris’s hands back down.
“No no no…” Ian stammered.
“Stop, stop!” Aaron agreed out loud. “He’s not an animal. He’s a person. You can’t just grab him.”
“But I asked him first! And I wasn’t just gonna grab him! How come Ian can pick him up and not me?”
“Because you’re not responsible like him.”
“Nuh-uh! I am ‘sponsible!”
I shook myself out of my fear.
“Ian? Can you help me up?”
Holding out his hand, I leaned against it and grunted myself to my feet. My bad knee immediately bent backwards, and I winced at the discomfort. I snapped it back into a straight position.
“Whoa…” Aaron exclaimed.
“Ah!” Chris shouted. “Did you break your leg?”
“No, guys! It’s just-”
“Ian, Ian,” I said, patting his finger. “Let them ask questions, it’s okay. I was very sick as a child and it made my leg this way. Ian and James call it ‘polio’.”
“Oh. I’ve heard of that,” Aaron said. “Does it hurt? Your leg, I mean? Can you walk on it?”
“It only hurts if I bend it too far back. It’s a bit difficult to walk on, but I’ll soon be okay enough to use crutches to get around.”
“What’s a polio?” Chris asked.
“It’s a virus that can paralyze and kill people,” Ian said. “Especially kids. It’s really scary, but humans don’t get it anymore because of vaccines you get as a baby. Lenn’s people still get it, I guess.”
“Did I get a vaccine so I won’t get it?”
“I’m sure you did.”
“That’s good. I like my legs straight.”
“I’ll bet you run really fast on them,” I said. “Faster than me!”
“Yup!” he said proudly.
“Well,” I coughed, carefully stepping out of my blanket nest towards the boy sitting before me. “Might as well get this over with.”
I stopped a half-foot from Chris’s folded legs. This young boy may have been the smallest yatvi I’d ever seen, but he still sat over me like a thick tree trunk.
“Chris, I’m going to trust you. Lift me up.”
“Lenn, are you sure?” Ian asked.
“I’m sure. So long as Chris promises to be careful.”
“I will, really,” Chris responded.
Despite the promise, Chris’s hands descended and monstrously closed in around me.
“Wait, wait…” I said, grabbing his hands as they approached, pulling the delicate fingers downwards. “Hold on, don’t take me all at once, you don’t want to make my wound worse. Hold me down here instead.”
I placed my hands on my hips, and Chris obeyed. His hands were cool and clammy to the touch, not to mention considerably smaller than Ian’s. They took my waist a bit tightly, and I soon felt my feet part from the bed, rising up to his eye level.
For a moment, he examined me. And when I say he examined me, I mean he brought me very close to his face and stared. His eyes darted across my features like a pair of bright-blue plates, and his long eyelashes blinked up and down like waving sails. He even went so far as to slightly rotate me side-to-side as if testing the gravity of my limbs, which swung heavy and loose.
“Wow,” he finally said, his breath smelling like a mixture of sugary cereal and toothpaste. “You’re so cool.”
I laughed, reaching a hand outwards. He leaned forwards as if knowing what to do, and I patted him on the forehead.
“I’m not that interesting, really. I don’t think I’ve ever been called ‘cool’. Except maybe by Ian. Serdi.”
He tilted his head.
“What’s ‘shur-dee’ mean?”
“It means ‘thank you’.”
“Oh. What’s ‘you’re welcome’?”
“Hmm.” He made a goofy face. “Shur-dee-ah!”
“Very good. Sulmtol!”
I felt a finger tap my shoulder.
“Where do you come from, Lenn?” Aaron asked. He chortled. “You’re not an alien from another planet, are you?”
“Oh, come on,” Ian moaned.
“Turn me around, would you Chris?”
The fingers rotated me to face the two older boys with interesting dexterity. I placed my hands on the edges of Chris’s own.
“No, I’m not… what did you say? An ay-lin? What is that?”
“Alien. It’s a scary person thing that comes from outer space.”
“Scary?” I shrugged. “I’m not scary, am I? What’s outer space?”
“Up past the atmosphere.”
“Like, above the clouds?”
“Yup, way above the clouds,” Aaron said, showing the distance with his hands. “Up in the stars.”
“Like the star war? I sure don’t come from there.”
Ian shoved Aaron sideways.
“Besides, aliens are green, with huge heads and great big eyes.” He widened his eyelids with his fingers. “Does he look green to you?”
“Whatever, you don’t know what an alien looks like, nobody does! If he is an alien, maybe he’s got a hidden spaceship somewhere. We should go search for it!” Aaron then grinned wildly. “What if he goes up during the middle of the night and abducts cows? Or shrinks them with a laser beam? That would be awesome!”
I burst out into laughter, as did the cousins.
“What, cows? What would I do with a cow? You kañi are so strange!”
“Kahn-yee?” asked a young voice behind me.
“It means ‘little boys’.”
“I’m not a ‘little boy’. I am great-big to you,” Chris said with a giggle, and I felt a pair of great thumbs press me forwards and massage the middle of my back.
“Hey! I am too, you know,” Aaron said.
I locked eyes with Ian and saw a grin on his face.
“We already talked about this, Lenn. Remember?”
I wobbled my head.
“Okay, fine. But I’m still older than all of you. How old are the two of you?”
“I’m nine and a half,” Aaron said.
Swift as a bird, Chris placed me onto the surface of the bed. My stomach leaped into my throat as I landed.
“I’m almost six,” he announced, revealing why he’d let me down: he held up five fingers in one hand, and a bent index finger on the other that showed just how close his birthday was. Then, as quickly as he’d placed me down, he picked me right back up again, his hands grasping me too far up my chest.
“Chris, you can’t just put him up and down like that. Be careful, please,” Ian said.
“Down on my hips, remember?” I said, grunting. “You’re getting a little too close to my bandages.”
“Sorry,” he whispered, leaning me back and laying out my prone body horizontal trying to follow my instructions. My legs hung limp, and my arms did the same between his thumbs.
“That’s not a good way to do it,” Ian said, and I heard the bed heave under pressure as he reached for me.
“No, I can do it, I can,” Chris said.
Chris then flipped me back vertically, and wrapped his hands back onto my hips… trapping my arms at my sides.
“Guh,” I heaved as the young boy’s hands rotated me forwards, the edges of his bony skin shoving my stomach inwards.
“Chris, stop,” Aaron said behind me.
“Come on, give him to me, Chris,” demanded Ian.
“No! No, I can do it! Let me hold him!”
In trying to keep me away, Chris yanked me backwards against his chest, and my face rammed into him. Two months ago, I would have been screaming in fear. Instead, the soft collision and this kañi fumbling with my entire body made a mindless laugh burst from my lungs. I had truly gone insane, and I think my laugh shocked them all.
“Ian, Aaron,” I choked. “Wait! I’m fine, I’m fine. Chris, it’s okay. Don’t squeeze too hard, I need to pull my arms out.”
The tightness faded immediately, and I plucked my arms out from between myself and his moist hands. I then felt myself slip forwards, and I reached out to grab the front of the boy’s shirt.
“Ah, careful Chris! Don’t drop me, please!”
His grip reformed around me properly, and again, Chris lifted me up to his eyes. Instead of excitement, I saw a face of concern and regret.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
“Phew,” I said cheerfully. “No problem.”
“Chris isn’t allowed to pick up the kittens at home,” Aaron laughed. “He plays with them too hard.”
“Nuh-uh! I’m getting better!”
I laughed with a moan.
“That, uh… that would have been good information to have a minute ago.” I patted Chris’s thumbs with both hands and looked up at his round face. “But you did very good, Chris. Sort of.”
He lit up like a candle.
“Yay!” he said with great big nods.
* * * * * *
The rest of that day, I became a merry little captive to the three kañi. From video games and watching funny movies on Ian’s phone to spending time in the backyard (keeping to the shadows of the porch as well as I could), I attempted to remain independent. But, of course, without crutches and practically limping by the late morning, I was carried and traded between all three boys like a pillbug. Catherine watched over all of us (or specifically me) to the point that she joined the boys whenever I was brought out of Ian’s room.
I could tell Ian was doing his best to keep me and Chris separated. Chris carried me around like a doll when it was “his turn” (which Ian begrudgingly allowed), and when he couldn’t, he poked and prodded me with every chance he could get. Aaron, on the other hand, was much more respectful. He was very calm and quiet for his age, mostly keeping his hands to himself. He followed directions much like Ian, but allowed me a bit more “freedom” than Ian preferred; whenever it was his turn to watch me, he let me walk instead of lifting me, and didn’t seem to know when or how to offer help when I stumbled. I didn’t mind all three of them, all things considered. But they certainly critiqued each other about the way I should be treated.
As the clock at Ian’s bedside table read 3 P.M., we spent the time watching an entertaining show on Ian’s television. Or, at least, the television was on; whether anyone was watching was debatable. Aaron sat in the chair, Ian laid on his bed, and Chris laid belly-first on the floor with his head in his hands. Naturally, as I sat on the floor resting my legs from playtime outside, Chris was right before me, and he was more interested in me than the cartoon. Aaron had begun to drift off, and Ian was engrossed on his phone, so I had no one to ‘protect’ me from the youthful and entertaining ka.
“You know,” I said to him as he bobbed his bare feet back and forth behind him. “I teach kids your age how to read and write. Do you have a teacher that does that for you?”
Chris nodded, his fingers dancing under his chin. He sniffed every few seconds as if allergic to something.
“Miss Rodriguez is my teacher. She’s really nice. But I’m not good at reading.”
He said every other word with an ever-so-slight pause, as if wanting to get everything out of his mouth correctly. I always found that endearing with kids his age, even if it annoyed some of the less-patient parents I negotiated with at the village.
“That’s okay,” I said. “It just takes practice. Have you learned how to spell your name?”
“Sulm! That’s a great start.”
“Shul-hmm? What’s that mean?”
“It means ‘good’. Like ‘sulmtol’, remember?”
“Oh yeah,” he said, nodding as if completely understanding.
“What do you like to do at school? What’s your favorite subject?”
“Hmm,” He tapped his finger on his nose. Then he snapped up. “Drawing.”
“Oh, that’s mine too. What do you draw?”
“With crayons,” he answered awkwardly. “I draw dinosaurs and houses and trucks, and all sorts of stuff.”
“Sulm,” I said again. Then I frowned. “I’ve read the word ‘dinosaur’ before. What’s it mean? What’s a dinosaur?”
“You don’t know what a dinosaur is?” Chris asked, leaning closer to me.
“Nope, I don’t.”
He spread his arms out as wide as they could go, leaving him breathless against the floor. His fingers nearly hit me on the way up.
“They’re great-big monsters that lived a million-billion years ago. Some of them ate plants, and some of them with big sharp teeth chased other dinosaurs and ate them.”
“A million-billion years ago?” I asked. “How do you know something lived that long ago?”
“Um… people find their bones and dig them up. And then put them in museums. I saw some when I went with Mom.”
“Their bones, huh?”
“They’re called fossils,” Ian added from his bed.
“Yeah, foss-sills,” Chris nodded.
“Interesting. You know, if my people found old bones, we knew it was important to stay away because that meant monsters like wolves and foxes and birds hunted there. If they found us, they would hurt our families and friends, and… and we’d all get very sad.”
Ys yul, those were bad memories. Images of a torn-off arm and blood-stained snow filled my mind, but those were hardly appropriate to share with a five-year old boy. Chris pouted.
“That makes me sad, too. I don’t want monsters to eat my family.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about that too much. You’re great-big, remember? Monsters would be afraid of you instead and run away.”
“But I’m not great-big,” Chris admitted, folding his arms on the floor and resting his head on them. “I’m small. I get scared that something will eat me.”
“Like dogs, huh Chris?” Ian said. “Are you still afraid of dogs?”
“Nuh-uh,” he said quickly. “Well… not small dogs. Big dogs are scary.”
“Every dog is big to me, so I’m certainly afraid of them. Cats, too. They’d all rather chew on me.”
“But you’re not afraid of big people like me?”
Chris’s fingers floated towards me and took hold of one of my feet. He pulled me towards him, causing me to slide through the thick carpet on my bottom. I don’t know if he correlated his question with his actions, but I certainly made the connection.
“I am… sometimes,” I whispered, pulling back. “Especially if they try to hurt me. I was very afraid of you when you and Ian and Aaron found me.”
“Me?” Chris stopped tugging, satisfied to tap his index finger and thumb around my ankle. “But I’m not scary.”
“You can be. If you picked me up and put me in a cage, I couldn’t get out. If you didn’t help me find food or water, I’d get very hungry and thirsty and sick. If you weren’t careful, you could drop me or step on me. You know?”
These novel ideas floated through Chris’s mind as well as across his pensive expression. His tongue came out of his mouth, licking his upper lip as he thought.
“That wouldn’t be very nice,” he said finally. “I wouldn’t do that.”
“What if you did it on accident?”
He thought again, his hand covering his lips.
“I’d be really careful… and say sorry.”
“That’s a good answer,” I asked. “I’m glad.”
“Well, you’re being very nice to me right now. So thank you, Chris. Serdi. You boys have all been very kind to me.”
Chris’s hand approached me (naturally the one he used to cover his tongue-soaked lip) and gently patted me on the head. Unsure of what he planned to do next, I laughed and tried to gently push him away. Instead, he took hold of my arm and bent it up and down like a stick on a hinge. He didn’t even have anything to say about his actions; he simply hummed to himself.
“Hey,” I said, patting his thumb with my other hand. “You’re silly.”
“Shoolm, shoolm,” he whispered. “You’re very… um, flex-ee-bull.”
“Well, careful,” I replied. “My shoulder hurts if it moves too much.”
He let go, but gently squeezed my foot again. Ian must have been watching, or at least listening.
“Chris,” he growled. “Don’t touch Lenn without asking first. You’re gonna hurt him.”
“But I won’t.”
“Hey, Chris,” I called to him, recapturing his attention. “Can you help me up?”
He rose from his belly and sat upon the floor with his feet tucked beneath him, and reached out his hands to grab me and lift me again.
“Not like that,” I said. “Just give me your hand so I can stand up.”
He did so, and with some effort, I clambered to my feet. Unable to stop a yawn, I paused for a moment, leaning against the young boy’s open hand.
“Not quite. It’s serdia, remember? ‘You’re welcome’.”
“Hey Ian,” I called. Ian’s face quickly appeared over the side of his bed. “Is it okay if I go back to the guest room to sleep?”
I heard his phone click off, and he sat up. He bent down to take me in his hands himself, but Chris intercepted him. Powerful kañi hands hauled me into the air and presented me to my not-so-little brother. My head spun, but I said nothing about it.
“Here you go!” Chris said cheerfully.
Ian’s face flashed with annoyance, but he didn’t say anything as he took me by my waist and cradled me against his chest.
“Serdi again, Chris,” I said.
“Um… oh yeah, serdia!”
“Can you stay here while I take Lenn to bed?” Ian asked.
“Uh-huh,” Chris replied, immediately turning himself and flattening against the carpet to watch the television. Ian rose and stepped over the youngest ka, muttering under his breath something akin to “thank you very much, you little dork”. I laughed, patting Ian’s chest, and he let out an airy guff.