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(This is an introduction to my dragonborn cleric for my current Dungeons and Dragons game. It’s a bit ahead of the current game, fan fiction of the fiction. 😀 I hope it’s fun to read!)
The City of Splendors, the people of Faerün called it. The shipping port of Waterdeep. The city employed every race along the coast, from diminutive gnomes and dwarves to fair elves and mighty dragonborn. Humans and halflings filled the streets, going to and fro between their daily tasks and chores. Clever scoundrels and orphans that belonged to no one played in the alleyways, always listening for secrets (or shiny things) they could sell to buy their next meal. The main cobblestone thoroughfare was wide enough for four wagons to ride abreast, but it seemed every other corner of the city varied in width.
And the doors! They were certainly constructed for average citizens to pass, even the doors that led to the interiors of taverns, stores, and warehouses. Honestly, nothing was built for a dragonborn. Not specifically, not here in Waterdeep. Of course, for the wealthy, buying an appropriate door was of little consequence. For those of more meager means, passing through dozens a day became a dull tradition to endure. Most dragonborn could get away with lowering their heads beneath the door frame and trying with all their might not to bump into anything. Most had practiced their urban lifestyle and set it out of their minds.
Etri was not an urban dragonborn. Nor was he small by any means. Standing a full head above regular dragonborn, Bahamut had graced the blue-scaled half-dragon with strength and durability beyond his peers. To make matters worse, Etri wore thick and well-worn armor crafted from hefty plates of iron, dull not from neglect but from weary use. Atop the rucksack upon his back hung a shield crafted of ironwood and steel, emblazoned with no symbol. At his waist, he carried a steel mace, forged with as much heft as the dragon himself. Coincidentally, the mace was bright and free of the grime that covered the rest of Etri. If there were any doors that this dragonborn could fit through, they were surely too high-class to allow him anyway. With dreadlocks of cerulean adorned with iron rings and the hint of horns at his temples, even the burliest creature would no doubt avoid him.
Were this the truth. He would have cleaner armor. And a much cleaner shield.
He certainly made an impression as he entered through the city gate and passed through the throng of city-dwellers. Trying to keep his golden eyes in the direction of his feet, he could never truly ignore the stares that followed him. Halflings and gnomes gave him wide berth. Humans and dwarves, no matter their stature or mass, watched him with suspicion, fear, or combative approval. Perhaps the only peoples that didn’t blindly stare were orcs and tieflings; most of them received the same kind of attention, and had learned to ignore it.
The only detail no one ever noticed about the dragonborn would have revealed the true nature beyond all the muscle and scales. Upon his neck and graced above the neck of his mail was a small gold charm in the same shape as his shield. In the very center had been inlaid with a small azure gem gifted to him by his mentor Korok. Rest his soul, only the quill and the gem he carried reminded him of his old friend. Beyond these physical mementos, Etri had only memories of healing, guilt, and redemption. It was his mentor that taught him of the great Bahamut, a selfless life beyond stinking fish and saltwater.
Yet Korok had not been granted time enough in life to help Etri find an answer to a great mystery: why Etri’s scales had begun to reveal flecks of metallic yellow beneath the scratches and cracks of his blue. The same shining color as the small piece of jewelry.
Even before his mentor adopted him, the blue dragonborn always made an impression on those he worked with and cared for. For all his sharp spines on his brow, claws on his hands, and fangs tightly meshed inside his stoic complexion, Etri spoke in soft tones. The pride of his youth had been torn away by the scars upon his arms and face. Perhaps not his temper when conflict arose. And although he considered himself a sage and a researcher, he never felt very bright. As a nestling, the call of the sea had been stronger than the call of education.
For thus did he come to Waterdeep. Surely the City of Splendors would have answers.
On that bright and cheerful day, Etri’s mind was deeper than the sea he once trawled. Only two locations in Waterdeep would he find an answer to Korok’s last question. The first were the Halls of Justice, located deep in the Castle Ward. Although the subject of gold dragons would fit within the purview of righteousness, surely there was little chance a priest from Waterdeep would wish to speak of any dragon, least of all to a gigantic stranger from the other side of Faerün. The second location and the more likely would be the Font of Knowledge, located just a street away from the temple.
If anyone questioned why, he had the letter. It would prove his intentions. If it did not, what would the city guard do? Arrest a dragonborn for wanting to learn?
At first, Etri lost his way, even with the directions given to him by a town crier. He traveled south and found himself at the market. It would have been a good location from which to orient himself. But with the traffic bustling in the wide space, he couldn’t see any signs, even above the heads of the townspeople.
He took it slow at first. There was little rush, the morning barely passing into a warm afternoon. Walking beside the many stalls and vendors in the marketplace, he contemplated if anything might strike his fancy. He had eaten before he entered the city, anticipating the long lines that no doubt filled the eateries. Curious, he passed by a blacksmith’s forge; an odd spot to set up shop, what with the constant heat of the day and the roar of the daily crowds. Hanging from hooks outside the smithing space were swords and daggers, maces and hammers, and even scimitars and rapiers of various sizes (matched to the size of people who would hopefully wield them). Etri nearly considered a polearm of some make, perhaps a bardiche. If he couldn’t use it in a fight, he could use it to butcher or split thin wood.
In the end, he decided against it. He already had trouble entering doors. A large polearm would make it impossible.
Etri then decided to find the best assistance any busy city could provide. He stepped into an alleyway just off the beaten path and spied his tour guides: a trio of young lads, two humans and a gnome, each younger than the other, tossing a leather ball. The moment they saw the giant dragon, they stood to their feet, quite ready to flee.
“Don’t be afraid, little ones,” Etri said, offering the children a small wave. This gave him time to approach and kneel. “I am seeking the Halls of Justice. I know it lies within the Castle Ward, but I don’t know the way. I don’t suppose you know which direction I should head?”
The boys looked at each other, considering the request.
“I’ll not ask for your help without compensation. If you guide me to the ward, I’ll give each of you a silver piece. Do we have a deal?”
At this news, all three boys lit up like wildfire.
“Certainly, sir!” cried the gnomish lad, waving to Etri. “It’s this way!”
“Yeah, it’s this way!”
From the path they led him, Etri would never have found his destination. The boys waved him down alleyway after alleyway, down thinner roads and carriage stops, through stables and past a smaller smithy and tailor’s shop. As he continued, the tenements disappeared, turning into apartments and large classy homes. The stores matched the paved streets, their goods glistening behind glass windows for gentry to admire. The boys led him through the yard of one residence in particular, and he knew for certain he would be detained for trespassing. Fortunately, no lawman or resident witnessed his crime, and he continued on with greater haste.
At last, the children stood next to a carved stone wall, and held out their hands to stop the dragon.
“This is it, sir!”
“Can we have our silver now?”
Etri grinned, kneeling down before them. It was not too long a time when he had been so bold.
“Nearly,” he said. “Do you know the way to the gate to the ward itself? Do they have guards stationed there?”
“Yes sir,” said the oldest boy. “It’s south, that way. We would take you there, but the guards shoo us away before we can get in. There’s mighty green gardens back there, but we’ll never get to see them.”
“Yeah, not ever.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” Etri said. “Would you believe me if I said I used to be as small as you, wishing I could play in gardens and eat fancy food?”
“There’s no way!” said the middle boy. “How’d you get so big and strong? I bet you beat up wolves and bandits all the time!”
“Have you ever killed anybody with your club?” asked the gnomish boy.
“Sadly, yes. But only in defense of the innocent. And to guard my companions.” Etri reached up to the charm around his neck. “I am a cleric of the god of dragons. I worship Him, and do my best to serve His will. And His will is to give aid to all, even the smallest and poorest.”
Etri reached to his belt and produced a silver piece for each of the boys.
“Thank you, kind sir!”
“You’re really nice!”
“Could we worship dragons too?” asked the oldest human. “Maybe we could be strong like you.”
“Perhaps not,” Etri said with a claw to his lips. “Most dragons don’t care for it. And you’ve heard stories of dragons burning down villages, haven’t you? I can’t imagine many people here would approve.”
The boys looked away.
“But there is a way you can serve the Light, if you wish to.”
“How?” asked the younger human.
“Take your silver and get yourselves something to eat. Treat yourselves. But then afterwards, share your fortune with someone in need.” Etri stroked the frill beneath his chin. “Do you know anyone sick? A widow who lost their husband at sea? Another boy or girl who hasn’t eaten in days?”
The boys paused in thought.
“There is Missus Alassen.” The older boy shrugged. “Her hubby got killed by bandits upways to Neverwinter. She don’t have much left.”
“And Landi.” The gnome said with a nod. “He’s so sad all the time.”
“Is Landi this widow’s son?” Etri asked.
All three boys nodded.
“They deserve a bit of kindness after all their suffering, don’t you think?”
“Yes sir,” they said.
“This is charity. It is a most simple act of goodness.” He placed his coin purse back on his belt. “Do not feel you must do this. You have earned your silver, and it is yours. Just consider my advice.”
“I’ll do it,” said the gnome. “I want to be like you, Sir Dragon.”
“Me too,” said the humans.
“I only do what I can,” Etri said with a dry chuckle, standing at last. He towered above the children, but they showed little fear. “As we all should.”
“We’ll help our friends!” said the oldest boy, racing back the way he came. “Come on!”
“Thank you, Sir Dragon!” shouted the two other boys, following after. Etri took a pause and watched the children sprint further into the town and out of sight.
Etri shook his head with a beleaguered smile. Not distant in his mind was a man who had given him the same gift. Perhaps if he had taken the advice as a child, he would not have burdened himself under his own stupidity.
“Halt!” said the Castle Ward guard. He wore shining armor that reflected the dignity of his position, his royal sword within a tight leather scabbard hanging at his waist. Even though his helmet covered much of his face and head, Etri could still see fear in the man’s eyes as the dragonborn looked down upon him. Perhaps the only support that bolstered him was his fellow standing opposite him at the archway entrance.
“Good day, sir,” Etri said, attempting to sound as non-threatening as possible. “I am looking for the Halls of Justice and the Font of Knowledge. Might this be the correct way?”
“What business do you have there?” The guard nearly stammered.
Etri took a step back. There was no use lying.
“I am searching for answers concerning my heritage.” Etri considered his words. “I have heard much of the research performed by the sages of Waterdeep about dragons… and rumors of dragons. I am a cleric on sabbatical from my monastery seeking any information I can find.”
“Your heritage, eh?” asked the distant guard. “Ancestry? Blue dragons, no doubt. I’ve heard they are quite vicious monsters.”
“Gold, perhaps,” Etri said, resting his weight on his mace. “My only clue. They take to mountains and plains. I used to be a sailor by trade, born not far from here. But now I serve the Light as a cleric, and I do not understand my own nature. This has left me with great confusion as to my familial line.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Very intriguing, sir,” said the guard. “I would much like to learn of what you find.”
The fearful guard looked at his comrade as if he had gone slightly mad.
“Indeed?” Etri’s head tilted. “Not many wish to learn of dragons.”
“I ask all who pass for tidbits,” the guard said with a laugh. “Whoever they may be. Some even grant my request! They make for wonderful stories for my children.”
“That is wonderful,” Etri said with a nod. “I will report on what I find. If I cannot find you, perhaps a note will suffice?”
“Certainly,” he said. “I would be very grateful.”
Etri looked back at the guard staring up at him.
“I may pass, then?”
“Aye sir,” he said, nearly tripping aside.
“Thank you, Cleric.” The guard saluted Etri. “I will await your return!”
As the little boys had described, gardens of flowers and trees filled the Castle Ward, as prim and proper as man could design. If he wore his priest robes and not his stuffy armor, Etri might have felt more within his element in that beautiful place. The streets were paved with intricate puzzles of marble, the kinds of organized stones that make children hop to avoid the lines between. Small fountains and songbirds brought natural music to the concourse, Etri’s second favorite ambiance besides the calls of gulls and waves.
Walking apace between the civic buildings were priests, researchers, and nobility that enjoyed the religious and academic ward, away from the hustle and bustle of markets and grocery. Every soul that came into viewing distance of the enormous cleric did their best to choose a different path, whether this path led down another avenue or through the nearest garden. He even dared laugh at one terrified elven noble who fell over a finely manicured hedge trying to avoid him.
Although Etri’s calling was pure and lawful, he still had fun at other people’s expense every once in a while. With the flick of his wrist, his thaumaturgy created a terrible snarling growl to erupt from behind the elf. The horrified gentleman let out a feminine shriek before flailing to his feet and sprinting away towards the Castle Ward gate in complete terror. Etri then realized he had likely forced the friendly guards at the archway into a difficult situation, and hoped they could forgive him when he returned.
Despite the majesty of the man-made structures, one monument towered and excelled beyond them all. Mount Waterdeep took up much of the horn of the city’s harbor, upon which settled the Peaktop Eyrie. Etri could easily view gryphons flying in organized groups, saddled with warriors of high renown and skill. Etri had heard tales of dragonborn whose skills had sharpened so near actual dragons that they themselves grew wings and soared the skies. It would probably be the only way Etri would ever get off the ground. That, or taking a flying leap off a cliff, which he didn’t think particularly wise.
As luck would have it, Etri’s feet led him right to The Halls of Justice. This temple, no doubt dedicated to Tyr, a deity of even-handed justice. An ironic title, given that most depictions described the Blind God as missing his left hand. The clergy supported charity above martial might, which had given Etri hopes that the temple might hold clues. He proceeded up the marble steps towards the entrance, impressed by the mighty marble columns that upheld the pantheon of the Triad above. The guards that stood sentinel beside the doors did not question him, although they did give him very concerned stares. One of the doors was already open (a door more than large enough for an actual dragon), so he stepped inside.
The temple was a beauty to behold. Pillars of stone held up a gorgeous arched ceiling that drew the eye heavenward, gauche imagery of knowledge and judgement painted upon its surface. Beneath the arches were carved walls of marble which framed stained glass windows of unmatched quality. Each window displayed different religious iconography, displaying the splendor for which the city was named. Distant from the entrance were pews of hardwood, and beyond them was a pulpit before a marble sculpture of the great god Himself: a humanlike figure with a great beard holding aloft a sword in one hand, supported by the handless left arm. In that moment, there was no service, creating a silence inside the sacred space that Etri appreciated immensely. He always felt safe inside a temple of order, no matter the deity worshipped within.
Etri waited in peace for a moment before a human entered from a small room beside the cathedral proper. He wore plain white robes, his long hair drawn back, a small white cap resting atop his head. He did not seem perturbed by Etri’s presence, walking up to the dragonborn cleric without hesitation.
“Good day, dragonborn,” the priest said with a small bow. “Welcome to the Halls of Justice.”
“Sir,” Etri said, greeting the priest in return with his fist to his heart and a deep bow. “I am sorry for the intrusion.”
“There is no apology necessary.” The priest motioned to the greater space within. “We welcome peoples of all races to the Temple of Tyr, so long as their intentions are pure. How can I assist you?”
“To be honest,” Etri said. “I am unsure if I have come to the right place to find answers to my questions.”
“For a follower of the great Bahamut,” the priest said with another bow. “All things are possible.”
“I am… surprised you could tell.”
“It may also surprise you to know how many dragonborn in Waterdeep also worship the god of dragons. Most worship in secret, naturally. Dragons are creatures of violence to most.”
“Of course. I suppose I have come to the wrong place to learn of dragons, then. Perhaps the Font of Knowledge will hold more promise.”
“You are a cleric, are you not?” the priest asked.
“I am…” Etri said with a deep chuckle. “Again you’ve caught me at a disadvantage.”
The priest gave him a wave.
Etri proceeded behind the priest through the same small door beside the cathedral. He then found himself within a large library of sorts, one of surprising height and depth. Upon all four walls, even below the windows of the far wall, large bookcases stood, filled with hundreds and perhaps thousands of books and scrolls. Some papers and documents appeared fresh and new, some were contained within glass displays for protection from dust, and even more were sewn together in entire anthologies.
“What knowledge do you seek?” asked the priest.
Etri opened his mouth, but no words came. The collection of documents, certainly more expansive than the monastery library, filled him with a bit of excitement.
The priest smiled.
“Even the sages at the Font of Knowledge come here to research religion.”
“I have never heard of a temple housing texts from other orders,” Etri said, stepping forwards. “Especially those of dragonborn.”
“Ours is not typical, and this is not a fact that those of regular attendance know. Tyr insists upon the prosperity of all races, not merely those that believe in Himself. Of course, Her High Radiance is not one to put the worship of other gods above Tyr, but she allows this library to exist to control the information available.”
“Ah,” Etri said. An ulterior motive. “I see. Why trust a stranger with this knowledge?”
“You are not the first dragonborn to come searching for answers.” The priest smiled. “And hopefully your calling begets your trust. What are your questions?”
“I don’t know if you have noticed the very signs I wear on my scales,” Etri said, pointing to his arm. “I am dragonborn, aligned with tempest and storm. The hue with which dragonborn are hatched does not change… or so I thought.”
The priest stepped forwards to examine him. His curiosity was very apparent.
“Fascinating,” the human said. “And I thought it was merely the metal of your armor that shined.”
“Gold,” Etri said. “Is it not?”
“I am unsure. I am not well versed in the traits of dragonborn, despite my personal research.”
“Royal dragons empower themselves with flame, and are just as like to rule with righteous fervor than with demanded authority.” Etri placed his claws on his hips and stared at the ground. “I have felt neither of these impulses. In fact, my control over thunder and lightning has only sharpened. I do not know what this means. Or if they have a connection at all.”
“Bronze dragons,” the priest said. “Sailors in Waterdeep are very familiar with them… or at least where their nests are.”
“Is that right?” Etri asked. “Bronze, not gold! Please tell me you have research on these dragons I can study.”
“We do indeed. Before I show you, I trust you will keep this library and what you learn in confidence.”
“You have my word,” Etri said immediately.
The priest stepped forwards and held out his hand.
“I am Brother Kylan Worlit. It is a pleasure.”
The dragonborn shook the man’s hand.
“Etri,” he said. “Etri Valkandrian. Believe me, the pleasure is all mine.”
With his armor removed, Etri felt considerably more comfortable; a strong defense did not contribute to the pursuit of learning. Tomes and texts sprawled themselves over the writing desk in the center of the library hall. At his ready command was his brass quill, his travel-worn leather journal, and two ink cups, one which he had already dried as the afternoon continued. Although the chair upon which Etri sat creaked at his weight, he did not let it deter him from reaching across the desk again and again for the many documents Brother Kylan had provided. Each one held details about the metallic and sea-faring dragons, official registrations of dragonborn coat-of-arms, and even dubious attempts to connect dragon family lines together. These were likely guesses if not outright lies; few dragons would admit to fathering generations of mortal spawn, and even fewer mortals would approach them to ask.
As the evening arrived, Etri took the long pipe from his pack and placed it in the corner of his mouth. He had stopped smoking under Korok’s insistence years ago, but he still felt the comfort the bent piece of driftwood provided him. Just as simple as a nestling, he always thought.
Bronze dragons. Curious. Interested in knowledge, if only for the sake of knowing. Playful? This Etri doubted. How would anyone come to that conclusion? Perhaps there was more to this point, however, as Etri read a fascinating story of a young girl stranded upon a deserted isle far to the west, perhaps even further than Moray. The book did not name the child. A clutch of bronze dragons played and cared for her, according to the record, led by a young dragon that shepherded the wyrmlings.
The tale ended with the young girl flying upon the back of the dragon, returning to the outskirts of Waterdeep. The dragons were never seen again. No directions, no further details.
Etri continued reading from the brief description. Large, vicious, even for those with good natures. Three thick bones grew from their cheeks and up to the crest of their heads. Most had a single frill near the tops of their necks. Etri massaged his out of reflex.
Storm, lightning, even rain and seas beckoned to them. Many notable bronze dragons had participated in large conflicts, especially those that threatened their nests. But according to the Nalmareedy Almanac (which was surprisingly accurate for a popular publication), most bronze dragons did not seek out battle, and detested killing if it did not serve a noble cause.
Then came the tale of Felifarn, one of the greatest historical curiosities of Waterdeep. This particular dragon had a fondness for sunken treasure, and carried what he found back into an underwater cave just a few leagues away from the city’s naval walls. As it so happened, the dragon spent much of his time not diving, but spending time among the human populace, disguised as a man in a dashing uniform from some non-existent shipping company. Dragons were famous (or infamous) for their shapeshifting abilities. The more Etri read, the more he could hope that bronze dragons lived up to the inquisitive and well-natured qualities described inside the scrolls.
Near the falling of the sun, another brother of the temple entered the library to replace and light the candles. He did not mind the cleric quietly reading, and graciously agreed to retrieve a lantern with which Etri could read more clearly. Etri felt very hungry and tired after the brother left, but he could not part his eyes from each page.
Not more than ten minutes after his lantern burned did the door to the library open. He lifted his eyes, expecting the same brother to step inside. Instead, an older figure slowly entered, stopping at the edge of the desk opposite Etri. She gained his attention in an instant. Her bearing gave her the air of nobility, but the garments she wore belonged to the church, without doubt. This was no simple sister. Etri quickly pulled the pipe out of sight and lifted himself from his chair in habit, giving the woman a respectful bow.
“Good evening, milady,” the dragonborn said, his voice as low as the candlelight. “I hope I am not disturbing the peace of this sacred place.”
“Brother Kylan offers much to an outsider, I see,” the human woman said, her voice with slight disapproval. “As with most knowledge, I say let sleeping dragons lie. But alas, when a cleric of a great beast arrives seeking what he ought not, people begin to talk and suspect. Do you not agree?”
“I agree, milady,” Etri said, a bit hesitant. “I only intend-“
“You will call me by my rightful name, Her Radiance Ghentilara,” said the woman. “Or the Sunrise Lord. No other.”
Etri’s eyes widened. He spoke to the Sunrise Lord herself, the high priestess of Tyr.
“Your Grace!” Etri shook his head. “I mean, Your Radiance! I thank you for the use of your beautiful library. I do not mean to impose upon your good grace, I-“
“But you do, dragonborn,” said the Sunrise Lord. “Although I am not without sympathy. There are few who understand from whence they come. Often it is only nobility are so filled with want of pedigree.”
Etri nodded, diverting his eyes.
“But I see that you are not nobility, nor are you driven by simple curiosity.”
“No, Your Radiance.” Etri’s eyes closed. “I do not know from whence I come. I have only known the road and the sea, and the guidance of my Lord.”
“Is it mere longing for family that drives you?” asked Ghentilara.
“It is not.” Etri set his quill down upon the desk, trying to form his thoughts. “No doubt you are familiar with my kind. For all my life I went where the wind blew me. I found stability from the faith my mentor taught me. He was… an old dragon taken before his time. I survived while he perished.”
“I do not know who I am, Your Radiance. I do not understand the powers that grow within me. Even my very scales betray what I once thought certain. I defend the innocent, aid the downtrodden, grant healing to the afflicted. But I do not know why.”
“Interesting.” Ghentilara walked around the desks with her eyes squarely upon Etri. “You would question your very nature? Follow the wind and waves as you say? If my knowledge of the great beast is correct, I am certain Lord Bahamut would not approve of His cleric changing at the whim of scrolls and books.”
“I cannot disagree,” Etri said with some sadness. “But I do not wish to change why He made me. I only wish to understand what happened to my mentor… and to me.”
“And you believe you can learn this knowledge through communion with a dragon?”
“I am uncertain.” Etri’s clawed finger then rose. “Your Radiance, perhaps this letter given to me by my mentor will help make sense of my pursuit.”
Upon the desk sat the very words Korok had given him, written a mere three days before he died and discovered a day later by the young dragonborn. Etri handed the paper to the older woman.
“It seemed nothing of my mentor’s death was coincidence.”
My life is coming to an end. When it will arrive I do not know, but I know it follows after me with haste. Lest you worry, it will not come from my own hand. And it will not come from illness or age. I do not wish to die, if it meant I could spend more time with my pupil. Perhaps teach him better manners.
None of this is your fault. Read this again: none of this is your fault. When my blood stains the ground, you will learn something about your old friend that may be difficult to comprehend. Few will mourn my passing. It may only be you. This does not sadden me. Bahamut calls to this old dragon, and I will answer Him without fear, as I hope you will when we finally reunite inside the celestial crystal halls. Perhaps I will meet the mate you choose. Perhaps I will meet your nestlings once your wandering days end.
When you find this letter and witness what remains of me, you will have many questions. I would tell you not to seek answers. But you have not listened to me before, and I do not expect your curiosity to vanish. Indeed, it is why I chose to be your mentor.
You have wisdom beyond your short years, and compassion that shines beyond your stature. Cultivate your soul in justice and soberness, and you will build a brighter world for all dragonborn. Brighter for all races across Faerün. Lord Bahamut has plucked you from the sea and set you upon the path of grace. Never forget the lessons I have taught you. And for heaven’s sake, boy, keep your weapon clean! Few bat an eye at a dirty brawler. But no one will ignore a cleric whose weapon reflects wisdom over violence.
When I die, look upon my body and see for yourself what has happened. Follow my blood. And follow yours. Only when you understand your origin will you understand the danger I have placed you in. Do not speak of this to anyone you do not trust. It will give you the chance to prepare.
I will die. But you will have time. I suppose this is the last gift I can offer you.
Yours in timeless brotherhood,
Ghentilara read the letter thoroughly, the interest quite apparent as she handed the slip of brown paper back to the dragonborn before her.
“Ominous. Pray tell, how did your mentor die?”
“Quite suddenly, Your Radiance. One moment we were traveling by carriage towards Baldur’s Gate four days distant, and the next the carriage was upszide-down. I was knocked unconscious, bleeding heavily. I crawled out of the ruined cart, and upon the ground some yards away lay my old friend, his scales charred by flame and filled with barbed arrows.”
Etri bared his teeth for a moment before remembering who stood before him.
“When I saw the hooded figures trying to abduct my mentor’s body, I charged forwards and attempted to fight them off. I succeeded in clipping one of the bandits in the arm with guided flame. But I was in no condition to capture them. They fled on horseback, leaving me in shock.”
“So what of the letter? What did he mean by ‘follow his blood’?”
“This is my unanswerable question, Your Radiance. As my blue-scaled mentor lay lifeless upon the ground, I witnessed what I thought impossible. His blood was no longer blue. It pooled around his corpse, shimmering gold. Plain as if he had granted me a fortune in death. In all my days, I have never heard of a dragonborn changing so.”
“His blood then began to burn. Like oil lit from a candle. As I watched for mere moments, his golden blood evaporated to nothing, leaving his body drained and cold.”
“Allow me to presume,” the Sunrise Lord said. “That you too have fallen under the same mysterious condition?”
“Yes, Your Radiance.” Etri raised his hand. “When I cut myself, I bleed gold. Blood that evaporates with arcane flame in mere moments. Under the candlelight it can be difficult to see, but my scales too have begun to change. Korok hid nothing from me, yet I don’t know if I will soon have to hide my face, my tail. I may have to abandon my charge if my very presence injures those around me.”
“Korok was not your kin, if I understand correctly. Yet his affliction passed to you.”
“I have no answers,” Etri said. “Least of which is knowing if my condition is an affliction at all. A poison, an illness, some form of dark magic, none of these seem to apply.”
Etri laid the letter back upon the desk.
“All I understand is what my mentor described in that letter. That I am in great danger because of my blood, and that I must prepare. For more of these hooded figures, perhaps. I do not know.”
Ghentilara stepped to the desk to cast a glance at the documents Etri had focused upon for the last few hours. The dragonborn took a step backwards to allow her room to pass the unrolled scrolls and documents one by one across the table.
“Isn’t that curious,” she said with a certain lilt in her voice. “Bronze dragons.”
“Indeed. It was Brother Kylan who had given me the idea. Perhaps I do not bleed gold, but bronze. It would match my upbringing by the sea, my martial focus of storm and lightning, and perhaps even my very nature.” Etri cleared his throat. “I have never intended to meet a dragon. Nor ask a favor of one. I will admit, the very idea of such a meeting fills me with a bit of trepida-“
“I will help you.”
Etri’s jaw hung for a moment.
“You will?” He shook out of his daze. “I mean, I would more than welcome your assistance, your Radiance. I would certainly offer my services in return.”
“You will, cleric of Bahamut.” The regal woman turned to pace towards the library door. “I have duties to attend to tonight, and have little time to explain now. Understand that I mean to offer you a mutually beneficial arrangement, one that will require a being of your skills and… stature.”
“Yes, Your Radiance,” Etri heartily agreed. “I am at your disposal.”
“Before you make yourself disposable,” Ghentilara said with a quiet chuckle. “I want you to understand that my request will not be trivial. I will be placing you and the cityin danger should you fail. Tonight, consider praying that my Lord will protect you as surely as Bahamut does.”
Etri bowed before the distinguished priestess.
“Clean up before you leave, will you?” Ghentilara asked with a hint of humor and a wave of her hand. “And return here sharply at seven o’clock tomorrow morning. We shall discuss the matter then.”
“Certainly, I will.” Etri gave a last deep bow. “Thank you, Your Radiance.”
After about an hour, the little yatili and the large yatvi came back into the guest room. Aaron and Chris told me that they needed to head home, so they said goodbye and departed. Juni had lost his energy since going to Ian’s room, and soon fell asleep underneath the blanket as Charsi and I researched the map on Ian’s phone for another while.
There wasn’t much detail I could see on the map, even in the simplistic map, that would give us any indication about which direction Elder Ordi might have chosen to lead everyone. Gatherers could travel as much distance as they could carry food and water. But the greater question was if they could escort sixty inexperienced yatili through the wilderness at night with the same resources. So instead of relying solely on the map, I decided to look up some of the different food sources we had relied on up in the hills.
To my absolute pleasure, humans had already done all of the work for me: all I had to do was read and identify. They named them differently than we did. Thornberries to us became thistleberries, the wickedly-sour poisonberry became the pin cherry, and disease roots became black morels. Some of the plants and fruits were poison (as I and the gatherers knew very well), some bloomed only in specific times of the year, and I saw others I had never even seen before. Charsi pointed out the ones she knew, and she tried to explain to me the taste of the fruits and roots she recognized. Unfortunately, she compared them to yatvi foods Eliza had fed her and Juni.
“Sorry,” I told her, more often than I wanted. “I haven’t eaten that.”
She got frustrated at first. But she laughed when I pointed out one in particular. The page showed a black fruit called a currant. I recognized it immediately. I was taught to call them ‘iketsal yodsi’: ‘long night of stomach pain’. She completely agreed with the name.
“A little after meeting Eliza, she fed one to Juni and I. We both had stomach aches all night long. She thought she had poisoned us, that she was going to kill us. She cried the whole time.”
“What did Xande say?”
“He wasn’t there… at first. Then he came home. Eliza showed him everything we ate, and he actually laughed at her. He told her we weren’t going to die, but she still stayed home all week to take care of us and make sure.”
I rolled my eyes at Xande, although I admit I probably would have done the same thing.
“From then on,” Charsi said. “She always always asked Xande what she should feed us. She asked him so much that it’s a joke now. He doesn’t think it’s funny, but we do.”
“So she does feed you more than chicken nugglets.”
Charsi snorted, covering her nose with her hands in embarrassment. I cracked up immediately.
“Hah!” I leaned to rest on my back. “That got you.”
“I don’t usually do that,” she said with a sheepish smile, wiping her nose. “Don’t tell Juni. He’ll be obnoxious about it for days.”
“No promises,” I grinned, making her whine. “Hey, if it’s not too much to ask… How did you and Juni meet? Eliza told us how she met you both, but not much of what happened before that. You weren’t from the same village, were you?”
Charsi folded her arms.
“No, I’ve never lived in a village. The first time I saw Juni, he… well, he actually saved me from being hit by a tire.”
“A tire? What, a car tire?”
“I don’t think so. It was a lot bigger than that. A truck tire, or a yatvi machine tire.”
“Was it… attached to a yatvi machine?”
“Oh,” Charsi said with a chuckle. “No, it was a garbage tire, by itself. Juni and I had been living in a yatvi garbage dump for a long time. We had never seen each other before, though. Big yatvi trucks would drive through and dump off new things, and the pile would have food sometimes. But I got greedy. I didn’t check to see if the truck would come back. By the time it did, I had dug down too deep, and got myself stuck. Juni appeared out of nowhere and pulled me out just as the tire smashed down.”
I shook my head.
“Unbelievable. How old were you two?”
“Maybe… seven,” she said with a shrug. “Juni was probably nine. We lived at the garbage dump for a long time before we ever saw another yatili.”
“It must have smelled horrible. You didn’t actually live in the dump, did you?”
“No, outside it. In a gopher den.”
I raised an eyebrow at her.
“You’re not that small.”
“Well, Juni dug it out first, just to make sure nothing was home. Technically, it was his home before we shared it.”
“And where did you live before that?”
“Inside a broken metal container. I didn’t live there long, it was the place I had hid when… after my father died.”
“Oh,” I said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she said, smiling at me. “I miss him, but I think he would be happy to see how big my family is now.”
She nodded with a grin, pulling her hair behind her ear.
“My mom died last,” said a voice behind Charsi. I looked over, and there was Juni, staring at the ceiling with his hands resting behind his head. “She told me to be strong, left to find food for us both. She never came back.”
Juni looked our way.
“When I found Charsi, she cried every day for a long time. I think you were even afraid of me.”
“I was,” she admitted. “I was afraid of everything.”
“Well,” Juni said with a shrug. “We had plenty of food and water. Some of it was actually pretty good. It was hard to get, though. It was all out in the open, yeah, but there were so many rats and birds I had to fight them off to get anything. Instead, I usually just went for the sealed stuff that didn’t weigh much. Eliza calls it ‘expired food’.”
“Expired?” I asked. “Like, dead?”
“Is that what that means?” Juni shrugged again. “Yeah, I guess yatvi call it dead when they don’t think it’s good anymore. I don’t know why they think that. If it’s in a closed bag, it’s good to me.”
“Me too,” Charsi said. “Even if it’s warm when it shouldn’t be. Of course, Eliza always tells us ‘expired food’ will make us sick. It never did, though.”
“So you two spent, what, a year near a garbage dump, and you never saw another yatili in all that time?”
They both shook their heads.
“I always thought someone would find us,” Charsi said. “But we never saw anyone. Except Xande, of course.”
“I always wished we found someone who could make us both some decent clothes,” Juni said, tugging at his shirt. “It’s not like we were naked or anything. But sometimes all I had was an itchy robe with pieces of plastic…”
He pointed to his cuffs, his chest, and his head.
“…tied to me as armor. I looked so stupid. It was always really cold and uncomfortable when it rained. Winter was vyshtal ese-”
“Juni!” Charsi exclaimed. “No swearing!”
“Vaya,” I said quickly, pressing my finger to my lips.
We all looked at Ian’s face for a silent second. His light snoring didn’t change.
“Sorry,” they both whispered.
“Anyway,” I said, looking directly at Juni. “Continue. And with cleaner words.”
I expected shame from him, but there was none. He chuckled instead.
“Right. So we’re crammed inside a gopher hole, right? I’m out searching for food again. It’s in the evening, when there are fewer birds. I was whistling to myself instead of being quiet, which was pretty stupid. I’m digging through a cardboard box when something touches my shoulder. I think to myself, it has to be a bird beak, or a cat tongue, or something else terrible…”
Juni gestured dramatically.
“I freak out and dive into the garbage, screaming. I feel something grab my shirt, and it pulls me out. It’s Xande. It was hard for him to cover my mouth and stop me from running out the box with one arm, but I’m glad he did, because right outside the box was two garbage men.”
“Why was Xande at the dump?” I asked him. “He wasn’t looking for food, was he?”
“Nah,” Juni said. “He was looking for lights. Electric lights. His had gone bad.”
“I told him he could take our lights, since we didn’t need so many. He wanted to leave right away, but I begged him to see Charsi first. He finally listened to me and followed me, and after we shared some food with him, he told us to follow him and that he would find us a home.”
“What do you mean, just like that? A yatili home? Or a yatvi home?”
“I think he meant yatili at first,” Charsi said. “But when we didn’t find anyone for a long time, I think he changed his mind. It was too dangerous to keep moving. We needed somewhere to live safe, and Xande said he couldn’t keep us that way by himself.”
I scratched my forehead.
“That doesn’t sound like him at all. Why Eliza? She told us she was the one who found you.”
“She did,” Charsi said with a smile. “Xande’s plan was for us to sit on the kitchen counter for her to find us. But she came home too soon, and we were still on the floor. Xande hid. Juni screamed his head off and ran. I was the only one who stayed put.”
“I think you mean I saved you,” Juni insisted. “If I hadn’t tired Eliza out by running away, she might have grabbed you first.”
“Sure,” Charsi said with sarcasm.
“You didn’t answer my question, though,” I said. “Why Eliza?”
“She didn’t own a dog,” Juni said. “Or a cat.”
“No, it was more than that. Xande said she was special.”
“He found us a place to hide, and he spent a few days studying yatvi in their homes,” Charsi explained. “He didn’t want a home that had kids. Or animals. He said he didn’t mind if the yatvi were married, but he preferred only one yatvi learned about us. And he had to know that the yatvi was a kind person. I don’t know why he thought Eliza was kind. I’ve never really asked him.”
“Huh. Well, he was right after all.”
“Yes, he was.”
“So what was it like meeting her for the first time?”
“Do you have to ask?” Juni moaned.
“The most frightening thing I’ve ever done,” Charsi said. “Xande had only taught me a little bit of English, and Juni had no idea what she was saying.”
“I did too,” Juni responded. “I just didn’t know how to say anything back.” He turned to me, pointing at Charsi. “I don’t get how she learned English so fast. And Xande won’t tell me where he learned English. You know, though. Don’t you? Was it in your village? Who taught him? Was it you?”
I pursed my lips.
“No, it was definitely not me. I would like to avoid being punched when I see Xande again, so I don’t think I’ll tell you.”
“There’s a lot Xande won’t tell us, actually,” Charsi said. “Like about where he goes all the time. He’s a really quiet person. He acts tough in front of Eliza, but… well, I’ve seen him cry when his shoulder hurt. He cried when he talked about Aria too.”
I couldn’t imagine him like that. I’d never really seen him in private, though, so I couldn’t have known.
“Don’t tell Xande you’re telling Lenn stuff like that, Sisi,” Juni said. “He’ll stop talking to you.”
Charsi waved her hands.
“He’s stopped talking to me before. When I ask too much. So I don’t, because I care about him. He lets me help him when he’s not mad at me, so I do my best.”
“He wasn’t keeping me a secret,” I said. “He certainly doesn’t care about me enough. And if he told you about Aria and the village, it isn’t that.”
“Well, I’m not about to ask him again,” Juni said. “Last time I tried, he wrapped his arm around my neck and laughed at me. Like we were wrestling, like I hadn’t even said anything.”
Charsi and Juni both shifted their eyes towards me.
“Don’t look at me,” I told them. “He already wants to kill me. I probably couldn’t even ask the question before he’d tear my leg off and club me with it.”
Juni laughed at me, and Charsi’s nose got all scrunched up.
“I never thought there would be someone Xande would actually hurt. And Eliza. He had never pulled out his knife to hurt her before.”
“He’s hit me before, but even for him, pulling a knife seemed a little… extreme.”
“Do you think,” Charsi asked. “When Aria comes, do you think you could become friends?”
“We would be related,” I said, dreading the thought. “But that’s probably it.”
“Hmm… Not even talk?”
“Ian would have to hold you,” Juni said. “And Eliza would have to hold Xande.”
He held up two fists and made noises as if they were squawking.
“And then you could shout and scream until you liked each other!”
“I wish it worked that way.”
“It’s not how it worked with you and Ian, is it,” Charsi asked. “I can’t imagine being found by all three of those boys at once. I would have died.”
“I was too busy actually dying to be scared,” I told her, smiling. “I lost so much blood, it took me at least two weeks to be scared of Ian. And I didn’t even see Chris and Aaron a week after that.”
I pointed at Juni.
“How long did it take you to stop being nervous around Eliza?”
“Hah,” he said to the ceiling. “Who says I stopped?”
“I wasn’t lying when I told Ian that Eliza still scares me,” Charsi said. “Especially if I don’t expect to see her. She can be really quiet when she wants to.”
“She doesn’t do it on purpose, does she?”
“Just to me,” Juni said quickly. “She’ll wait until she knows it’s just me, and she’ll stomp her feet and shout ‘boo’! I hate it when she does that.”
“Ian cares too much about what I think of him,” I said. “When he teases me or scares me on accident, it’s like he regrets it. That I’ll just stop liking him.” I snapped my fingers. “Just like that.”
“That’s so weird.” Juni said. “He scared me, but I still like him.”
“That’s what I told him. I must be his brother now because I don’t think he believed me. You’ll have to tell him yourself.” I poked Charsi’s shoulder gently. “Ian really worried about you when Aaron held you. I’m glad he was holding onto me at the same time, or he might have stopped you from trying.”
Charsi watched Ian for a moment.
“I never thought in a hundred years I’d ever get to meet human boys. And all three have promised to protect us.”
“Still think they’re monsters?” I asked her.
“Just a little.”
“Meeting human boys, huh?” Juni teased. “You gonna fall in love with one?”
Charsi and I both leered at him.
“Eww, what!” Charsi swatted the words away in disgust. “No way, are you crazy?! We’re not even-! No!”
“I’ll bet you’re in love with Ian!” he sung. “I’m gonna tell him you said so!”
Charsi scooted herself towards Juni, and in a flash of frustration, smacked her brother’s shoulder. All it made him do was laugh, and he retaliated by poking Charsi in the ribs. Both of them struggled, growled, and laughed. Loudly.
“Hey, you two! Keep it down! If you wake Ian up, I’m going to-”
The movement of the hairy head that laid prone upon the pillow next to ours didn’t make a sound. Neither did the bed, not that I remember. I was looking at the two bickering children when I saw Juni’s face go cold. Then Charsi’s turned white as she gasped. I then turned, and not more than four inches away from me floated a scowling blue-green eye. It turned my stomach for a quick second before I recognized the dimple beneath it.
“Ah,” I said, pointing. “Before you say anything, I’ll remind you that you wanted to sleep in here.”
“I was sleeping,” growled the human. “But I guess I’m not anymore.”
My pleasant smile quickly passed on to him, and we both laughed. The great happy eye then passed from me to Eliza’s two troublemakers.
“Hi Charsi, hi Juni,” he whispered. “What’s up?”
Juni recovered faster.
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “Charsi wants to tell you something!”
Charsi turned and slugged her brother’s arm. It shouldn’t have surprised me that she could, but it surprised me more when Juni took it in stride.
“H-Hi Ian,” she said as she timidly turned. “How are… um, how are you feeling?”
“I’m okay,” he replied. “I kept hearing my name. Were you talking about me?”
Charsi slammed Juni’s mouth shut.
“No, no! Well, I mean, only a little, about, uh… how you’re our friend, and that we’re family now, and not-”
Juni tore her hand off.
“Ian, Charsi said that she lo-”
Charsi slammed both hands over his mouth.
“Hush!” she hissed.
Ian looked at me looking slightly confused but very amused. I just smiled back at him.
“Juni wants Charsi to say that she loves you,” I said, covering my mouth with my hand. “Isn’t that strange?”
I looked back, and saw Charsi’s face turn red. Juni, now freed of his sister’s hands, filled the room with cackling laughter.
“Lenn is on my side!” Juni shouted.
“There aren’t supposed to be sides!” Charsi shouted back, forcing her brother’s head away. She swiveled to face me, slapping the pillow. “Lenn, you’re mean! You can’t just tell Ian things like that!”
“But…” Ian said, immediately playing along. His expression turned to one of feigned sadness. “You don’t love me at all?”
Charsi sat, very visibly stunned.
“No!” she exclaimed. She skipped a beat. “Well, uh, I didn’t… I didn’t mean… Love, like a… like a cousin, and not like…”
Juni cackled all the harder. Ian’s face appeared injured by Charsi’s stammered words.
“You!” She pointed at Ian, then at me. “I… I know what you’re doing! You can’t do what I did! That’s not fair!”
Ian’s dimple returned and he smiled. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“It’s all fair,” I replied. “We’re all family now, so we’re supposed to tease each other!”
“But I don’t like being teased!”
Ian’s hand appeared from beneath his blanket and approached Charsi carefully. She attempted to stop the fingers before they reached her, but they instead took her gently by the hand.
“I know what you mean, Charsi,” he said, sounding tired. “And I’m sorry I scared you when I fought with Lenn. I only wanted to protect you from Aaron. I guess I didn’t do the right thing.”
Her wounded expression turned thoughtful.
“Oh, I…” she whispered back. “I know… and I’m, um, sorry for making you worry. You shouldn’t have to when you’re so hurt.”
Ian smiled as best he could.
“And I love all my cousins. Even Juni.”
Juni’s face scrunched like he’d eaten a whole lemon.
“Ack,” he spit, sticking his tongue out. “Ñeh serdi.”
Ian’s fingers released Charsi’s hand and flew straight to Juni. Enveloping all sides of his head, Ian gathered the boy’s long, white-blond hair and lifted it upwards. Juni yelped and shooed Ian’s hand away, smooshing his hair back into place. It got the point across without much effort.
“Ñeh! No! Now Ian’s mean!”
“Okay, kañi and kalñi, we get it. We’re all mean,” I sighed with a chuckle. I turned back. “How are you really feeling, Ian?”
“Bad enough for me to get Catherine?”
“…maybe not yet.” He pulled back to rest upon his own pillow. He then pointed at his phone before bundling his blanket up beneath his chin. “Teach me something. I’ll try not to fall asleep.”
“Can I tell Ian about how Juni and I met?” Charsi asked.
“Of course,” I replied. “Go right ahead.”
She nearly began, but she caught herself mid-breath.
“Ah, um… how do you say ‘sarefi reasar’ in English again?”
“Oh yeah. Dump. Right.”
“Dump,” Juni said in English, testing the word. “That sounds funny.”
“What about a garbage dump?” Ian asked.
“Let Charsi tell you,” I said.
Ian nodded, and Charsi began.
“That’s why I was so afraid of you,” Charsi said, now herself laying beneath the edge of the blanket. The room had grown chilly, and even I slid down and sat close to Charsi to warm up beneath it. “Every yatvi I ever saw would have killed me. Or that’s what I thought. I only knew Eliza, and I didn’t want to be scared again like Eliza scared me.”
“I’m sorry, Charsi,” Ian mumbled, laying his head upon the flat bed instead of the pillow. “I didn’t know.”
“And I want to think I’m like Xande,” Juni said. “That I’m big and strong. But… I’m not. Not really.”
I patted Charsi’s back.
“You two are much braver than you think. I never went through anything like that growing up.”
Ian’s eye closed.
“Me neither. I feel like such a loser. I can’t even do simple things like go to school without ending up like… this.”
He placed his hand directly upon his broken cheek, just light enough to feel the pain.
“But you have a mom and dad that love you,” Juni said.
“And you’re a hero,” I added. “All you have to do is look at my scar. You knew just what you had to do to save my life.”
“I’m not a hero.” His eye looked back at me. “If I was, other people would like me.”
“Well, we like you.”
Juni and Charsi agreed.
“You know what I mean, though,” Ian said. “I don’t have any friends. Not even at church. I want to stay home for the rest of my life where people actually care.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” I chuckled. “But you know you can’t do that. You showed me that there’s so much out in the world to learn. What if you go out there, come back, and teach me everything you learn? Then I can teach it to Aria and my child, and Charsi and Juni? Who knows, we might even find other yatili who want to learn too.”
“Yeah!” Juni said. “You could be a teacher like Lenn and teach a whole room of yatili!”
Ian gently smiled.
“You think there’s enough of you out there?”
“To fill a room?” I looked at Charsi, and she shrugged. “There has to be.”
“Are we going to learn from you and Ian?” Charsi asked. “Before all that, I mean.”
“You’ll have to ask Eliza,” I said. “I’m not sure what she has in mind. Do you really want to learn from a cripple and a goofy kañi?”
Charsi laughed along with her brother.
“I live with Goofy every day,” she said plainly, throwing her finger towards Juni. “I don’t mind.”
“And I live with kalvalin idi,” Juni replied, pointing back at her. “I’m used to it.”
“What does that mean?” Ian asked. “’Girl’ something.”
“Smart weird girl,” I said.
“I’m smart, not weird,” Charsi insisted. “You’re the one who can’t do math.”
Juni slapped the blanket.
“I can too!” He paused just long enough to make everyone doubt. “Well, Eliza just makes it confusing with big numbers!”
“I’m bad at math too,” Ian said. “I hope Lenn knows.”
“Uh,” I said. “I don’t do numbers. Maybe Eliza will be a guest teacher.”
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This is Catja Stelzner, junior reporter for the Charleston Herald. Or, at least, I was. And if I’m discovered with any of the information I’m about to send you, I don’t think anyone will ever see me again. I think I’m already dead, in fact, and unless you’re fast enough to report this, you probably are too. They’ll bury anyone with this information so deep, they’ll even bury the backhoe just to make sure there’s no evidence.
Okay, details, details… The whole reason this thing started was an announcement from the lead editors to search for information about any business or company that seemed shady enough to do business under the table, weed out corruption. Maybe find financial records in the government archives that didn’t quite match the type of work they performed. Simple enough, right?
I spent five months in the basement of the capitol building, sifting through paper record after paper record, electronic entry after electronic entry, trying to do research on one company in particular:
I know, I know, you’re probably thinking: what the hell is a junior reporter doing, performing research on the nation’s largest defense contractor? If I even mentioned what I was doing, everyone would call me a communist sympathizer, I’d lose my job, and I’d never find work in Columbia again. I used every excuse at work to continue my research. But West-Tek could do no wrong. All the numbers matched up. All the signatures signed. All the ‘I’s dotted and the ‘T’s crossed.
But this was personal to me. My husband, Deeter, died of the New Plague in 2068.
I was away in Canada on a reporting job about the proposed annexation when I heard the news. They didn’t even let me see the body. There was no funeral. I couldn’t afford it. His parents lived in Germany, and mine in Sweden, and there was no use trying to get any of them on a plane with the government travel restrictions. I tried to send a message back there about his death, but I’m not sure they ever got it. Knowing what I know now, they probably intercepted any message with his name.
I exhausted every lead I could think to search in the archives. This meant I had two choices: move on to something considerably less dangerous, or follow the only real lead I had: Deeter.
I knew something was wrong from the very moment I called AVR Medical. When I said Deeter’s name, the nurse on the other line went silent. The doctor I spoke with skirted my questions and said Deeter had died of external hemorrhaging and suffocation. I demanded to see his medical records, demanded to know where his body had gone. But the only thing he could say was that it had been sent to a biomedical center for research into a cure for the Plague. They didn’t need to specify which “center” he’d been sent to, because I’d been there several times covering news reports of medical revolutions discovered there.
The West-Tek Research Facility, just north of Huntersville.
Two months ago, just before the sun went down, I got in my car and drove. I don’t know what I intended to do when I got to the facility, as there was no doubt the highest security imaginable: cameras, electronic turrets, guards, probably even dogs for all I knew. All I had was the ProSnap camera in my shoulder bag. I didn’t even bring my reporter’s badge because I knew if I were detained, the Herald would face serious consequences for my actions. The road to West-Tek through Huntersville was closed due to quarantine, so I drove around Whitesprings to get there.
I arrived just before the front office’s closing time. I would have preferred to face a firing line of Chinese soldiers than walk into this place, if only for the fact that the Chinese would end me swiftly. But the only thing driving me was my beloved Deeter. Whether he was alive or dead, I would find him.
There were guards outside the office, and they eyed me with suspicion. I was right about the dogs. But my camera was hidden in my bag, and I kept my head upright and continued walking. Confidence. That was the key. The automatic doors opened, and I strode right up to the reception desk, where I saw a young woman standing, filing papers.
“Welcome to West-Tek!” she said cheerfully. “How can I help you?”
I stammered, and said something stupid about performing inspections of the emergency sprinkler systems.
“May I check your bag? It’s just routine, to make sure you don’t bring in anything that could contaminate the labs!”
My heart sank, but I handed her my bag. She dug into it, no doubt saw my camera, and her eyes widened. I knew in that moment I was as good as dead. But then her expression returned to sugary and cheerful.
“Ah, Doctor Forsythe!” she said, returning my bag to me. “Doctor Landis will be so pleased to see you’ve come a day early. Here’s your electronic pass. Now, be sure to wear it everywhere you go in the building! Wouldn’t want any accidents to happen, now, would we?”
She then hustled me towards the door beside the desk.
“If you head straight down this hallway, take a left, then a right, you’ll find yourself in the hydroponics lab. From there, take a right and you’ll be exactly where you should be. Most of the staff have gone home for the day, so you shouldn’t have any interruptions at all.”
She didn’t seem perturbed that I said nothing in return. Her cheery disposition melted when she handed the pass to me. She turned back to her papers at the reception desk, filed them, grabbed her purse, and practically booked it out the front doors. I couldn’t believe it. She was just waiting for someone with a camera to come striding into the building. I never caught her name, and I don’t know what happened to her. I can only hope she escaped safely. If I see her again, I’m going to throw her a champagne party.
I followed the directions she’d given me, and what I saw amazed me; I’d never seen any of the crops they were growing inside that lab. The corn looked rotten, gourds of all sizes and colors grew in planters. And frankly, I didn’t want to know what the disgusting tomato-looking plants were.
I took a right from the lab, walked up a ramp, and stepped into a vast room that smelled of ammonia and sulfur. It was then I saw the tanks. The liquid inside the uncovered tanks glowed a sickly green color as if made of radiation. Making sure no one was around, I took several shots of the tanks and moved on. Most of the facility was a maze of machinery, and I didn’t quite know where to go next. I descended another ramp and stepped through an automatic door that led to a stairwell. Cautious for any sounds or movement, I found myself on the second floor in front of two large doors with a terminal beside it.
I know nothing about working with computers. Besides word processors, of course. But I knew how to turn a terminal on, so I did. It called for a password, and I thought I didn’t have one. But then I remembered the badge. On the back was a long string of letters and numbers. I knew that if this was wrong, the entire facility would go on alert and know exactly where I was. My fingers were trembling as I typed the keys, and I had to backspace a few times. But it worked. The doors opened.
What I saw then I’ve only imagined in my most horrible nightmares. Inside glowing green tanks floated giant abominations that looked human but misshapen, with green skin and muscles like a twisted professional bodybuilder. I took as many pictures as I could.
I snuck further into the labs (avoiding the tanks) and found myself in a hallway lined with experiment rooms complete with what I assumed were one-way windows. Inside most of them were dead monstrosities. I couldn’t tell if they were actively rotting or if they simply looked that way. The terminal beside the door gave me a name: Sheila Dauber from Huntersville. I crossed the hallway and looked at another terminal: Thomas McDevitt from Huntersville. There was practically no difference between female and male, if they were indeed the test subjects.
I knew the New Plague had struck that town pretty hard, and that West-Tek and the feds had been sent to give aid. I never could have imagined what West-Tek was actually doing to them.
I looked through one of the rooms and saw a holotape sitting on the table. I grabbed it. The audio on that tape is, well… It’s graphic. I can’t imagine anyone willingly performing tests like these on other human beings, other Americans. It’s included for you to review. I’d say destroy it after you’ve dictated it, but you might need some kind of proof besides a sheet of paper. I can’t advise you either way.
I continued further, hearing nothing but the sound of electronics and bubbling tanks. That is, until I happened upon a larger experimentation room. I peered through the glass and saw something incomprehensibly terrible. A formless blob, limbs coming out in all directions, no head that I could see. It rolled around on the floor aimlessly, and I could hear its rasping breath over the room’s intercom.
I took a picture, but I think it saw the flash through the one-way window. If it even had eyes to see. It made gurgling sounds as if its mouth were pressed flat upon the ground, and it rolled over until a disturbing orifice appeared.
I then heard a sound I’ll never forget for the rest of my life, an echo that I will take to my grave.
The thing said my name.
And it had Deeter’s voice.
Although the experimentation room had a terminal beside the door, I didn’t dare turn it on to read the name. A choice that will forever haunt me.
I regret that my investigation ended there. I panicked, retracing my steps as I began to hyperventilate. I saw one staff member in hydroponics working late, and I’m pretty sure he got a look at me as I strode past him. He didn’t say anything, though, and I managed to maintain my nerves long enough to give the guards my “Doctor Forsythe” pass and walk to my car.
I didn’t know where to go after that. I couldn’t return home; they had my face on camera. I couldn’t go to the Herald with my camera and that holotape; they were too close to the government, too close to West-Tek. And who’s going to believe a junior reporter with fuzzy images and a doctored holotape?
Look, I know the group you belong to. It doesn’t matter to me. I can only hope that you’ll believe me and spread the word about West-Tek’s evil. Those tanks of green glowing liquid created those creatures and turned my husband into something utterly inhuman. Huntersville is being harvested to create these monsters. And who knows what else they have in store for us? For all we know, they might have even created the New Plague in the first place as an excuse to kidnap people and experiment on them.
Please tell America about West-Tek. Don’t let the world forget about Deeter Stelzner. I can’t tell you my location, but I will try to contact you again soon. There are others like me in hiding with more evidence of West-Tek’s horrors. But I’m sure you know that already.
This is real. It’s happening now. And America is too blinded by war and patriotism to see it.
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.
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.”
Here’s another example of my writing not being for anybody but me. My faith is important to me; would you keep it away from children that came into your care? In a case like this, how would it work at all? I contemplated on the idea of Lenn returning to the village to teach the gospel to his fellow Iatili, but I thought he would be too skeptical.
The kids, on the other hand, would have taught by Eliza. With two years of living with her, how could they not? Xande would be just as skeptical, of course, perhaps more so. I still think faith in family is more important than no faith at all.
That night, now that the frightening ice had been broken between everyone, the three kids and I relaxed together in Ian’s room. Instead of cartoons, we watched some fascinating show on the television about vehicles called “sports cars” that raced along on black roads at alarming speeds; the drivers wore helmets, certainly, but if they crashed, I questioned whether they would survive at all.
Charsi and I sat beside each other next to the edge of Ian’s bed as Ian lay on his stomach with his head resting on his arms. Every so often, I would look over at Charsi; she seemed a bit bored of the television show (I could only imagine since she’d had two years of experience watching such boyish things). But she would look at me with a small smile, and every so often share glances with Ian when the Iatvi boy “wowed” at the spectacle on the screen. Juni, on the other hand, once again stretched out over Ian’s shoulder, mirroring Ian’s own position and acting just as mesmerized by the action. When the advertisements for fancy cars, restaurants, and power tools came on, Juni would stand to his feet, wobbling to balance on the bony shoulder, and hold Ian’s hair to remain in place. When Juni did this, Ian gently rocked his head side-to-side, and Juni would make funny noises, telling Ian: “Ve mani! Stay still!” The third time, Ian grabbed Juni around his middle as if to hoist the Iatili boy up and away, but he did this just to make Juni shout. I almost scolded him, but when Ian laughed and let Juni go, Juni’s fear evaporated and he laughed right back.
Just before the show ended, we all heard a knock on the door. The kids froze, but Ian and I waved as Catherine stuck her head into the bedroom. A wide smile appeared on her face.
“Look at you all…” she gasped, placing a hand to her cheek. “You are so adorable together! Is everything okay in here?”
“Yeah, Mom, we’re good,” Ian said.
“That’s because Ian hasn’t gotten into trouble yet,” I replied, shooting a glance at him.
“Aunt Catherine?” Juni asked. I grinned. She was already ‘Aunt Catherine’. “Yoduis kia noordi?”
“Mine too?” Charsi peeped.
“What does that mean?”
“Eh, finished, complete,” I translated. “Are their clothes done?”
“Oh, right. Sorry, kids, I’m not quite that fast. It might take me a few days to make them perfect. Is that all right?”
“Uh-huh,” both kids said.
“Where are we going to set you up to sleep?” she asked us.
“They can sleep in the guest room with me,” I said.
“Or I can make a place for them here in my room,” Ian added. “What do you guys think?”
Juni hummed, and Charsi looked around her with unsure concern.
“It stays pretty warm in here,” I said, patting Ian’s bed. “The guest room gets a bit chilly during the night. But Ian snores, so I’m not sure which one you want.”
“You sure do,” I replied with a grin.
“Angia lai eilir unlo,” Juni said, patting Ian’s neck. He’d taken to the Iatvi boy with incredible confidence. “Vah ehr sulm, Ian?”
“English, Juni,” I said.
“Oh. Um… Is it okay… if I sleep? In here?”
“It’s fine with me,” Ian said, patting the entire upper half of the Iatili boy.
“Can I sleep in the guest room? With Lenn?” Charsi asked.
“Certainly,” Catherine said.
“I don’t snore,” I whispered, leaning over to her and holding my hand over my mouth. “Ehh, much.”
“Nuh-uh! Neh wendia!”
“Neh vah dakasi!”
“Okay, kalkani, no more Iatnasi. Eliza may know what you’re saying, but Ian and Catherine don’t.”
“Okay,” Charsi said, a bit down. “Sorry.”
“Sia, dev.” Juni said. I gave him a look. “Um, y-yes, sorry.”
“Don’t be sad,” Catherine said. “If you teach us, we’ll be able to understand you better. We can help with English if you help us with your language. Okay?”
“Iatnasi,” Ian said to his mother. “It’s called Iatnasi.”
“Iatnasi,” Catherine repeated. “I hope I’ll remember.”
Catherine turned her head to look at someone else behind her, then stepped into the room and took a seat in the chair. Another figure then entered the room, and this made Charsi hide behind me and Juni drop off of Ian’s shoulder to join his sister.
“Hi Dad,” Ian said with a wave.
“Hey,” I said, patting their shoulders to get their attention away from their fear. “This is James, Ian’s father. He’s the doctor who’s been helping me recover.”
“Hello everyone,” James said quietly, kneeling down next to his wife.
“Don’t be afraid,” Ian said, patting Juni’s back with two fingers. “He won’t hurt you.”
“That’s right,” I added, and Charsi looked up at me. “He’s the kindest Iatvi I’ve ever met.”
“Well, serdi, Lenn, ladalia.” James said with a grin. “Did I say it right? ‘I try’?”
“Yup,” I said.
The two kids looked up towards him.
“Hey, you’re learning, too,” Ian said.
“Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of my Iatnasi,” James said. “Perhaps I could pay Lenn to write a language guide. I’m sure I could find a keyboard small enough for him to use.”
“Keyboard? What’s that? For a phone?”
“For typing on a computer,” James said. “Oh, Ian, you’re slacking, all this time and you haven’t shown him the computer yet?”
“I’m going to show him when I write my history paper. I’ve got lots of good info.”
“Sorry, James,” I said, holding Charsi’s hand. “Introductions? This is Charsi, and this is Juni. They’re both great kids.”
Juni and Charsi both gave timid waves.
“Nice to meet you, Juni. And Charsi. I’m sorry I didn’t come say hello earlier, I didn’t want to scare you with everything else going on. Are you settling in? Have Ian and Lenn been treating you okay?”
“I don’t know,” I said with a smile, looking at the two. “How are we doing?”
Charsi’s expression stayed nervous, but she offered a nod as she looked up at me. Juni looked back at Ian.
“I only scared them a little bit,” Ian said. “But we’re friends now.”
“Yeah,” Juni said. “Ian’s fun.”
“I’m only kinda fun today, though,” Ian continued. “I’ve had homework. We only barely got to watch something interesting.”
“And Lenn is nice like Catherine and Eliza,” Charsi said. “Um. And Ian, too.”
“Thanks Sisi,” I said with a grin. She smiled back.
“Well, I wouldn’t expect less from either of them.” James wiped an eye. “I haven’t been very fun today, either. I work too hard.”
“But if you didn’t,” I said. “You wouldn’t have all these wonderful things and be able to raise a family. It’s like I told you and Catherine: I don’t know if there’s any work I could do to repay you for keeping me alive. And Eliza does the same for Charsi and Juni. Your work is important, you care for other people, like you care for me.”
“But work is just work, Lenn,” James told me. “It puts food on the table, but it keeps me away from Catherine and Ian. And family is the most important thing, isn’t it? I have to remind myself of that every day.”
“That’s why we have to find Aria.”
I’ll admit, he surprised me.
“You mean… you really want us to be here? Aria and I, and our child…?”
“Absolutely,” James said. “That is, unless you have other plans. We would never force it upon you.”
“No, we…” I swallowed. “We don’t have any plans… we never had a plan at all. That’s why I feel so guilty-”
“Nuh-uh, Lenn,” Ian said, reaching over Charsi. His thumb pressed against my back, his index finger pressed upon my chest, and he gently shook me back and forth. “No ‘guilty’. I want you to live here. And I want to be an uncle.”
I put on the strangest face I could and looked at the boy, pushing his finger off of me.
“Seriously? That’s what you want? I think you’re stretching the definition of ‘family’ here.”
Ian’s smile grew wide.
“I don’t think so,” he said with sincerity.
“Whatever we would be,” Catherine said. “We want to offer you a place here. Of course, it depends on Aria as well. We’ll find her, and you can make your decision together.”
I told them about my dream. It was a short dream, but something I won’t forget for the rest of my life. I described it as clearly as I could, as if I had been back in the school with you. I described life with you to everyone, from our frustrating arguments to our special moments together. Had you been there (and I wish you had been at that moment), you would have blushed and told them all about my dumb ideas and silly habits that drove you crazy just to even the field. Looking back, I know I was wishing for another miracle. Another Iatvi miracle. None of this mattered at all if I couldn’t find you.
“That settles it,” James said. “I think your plan to start hiking is a good one, at least as a start. And Ian, your idea isn’t too bad… although I don’t think heat vision is something we can afford. What I can do, though, is ask Robert Benson if I can borrow his night-vision binoculars. He’s a friend of mine, and he goes hunting for elk every season.”
I had no clue what tool a Iatvi would use to bring down an animal so large, but I figured I could ask that question later.
“What are night-vision… binok-u-lars? Is that how you say it?” I asked.
“Yep,” James said. “They’re a tool that can help you see far away things as if they were very close, and night-vision makes it possible to use the binoculars even in complete darkness. This may be revealing a lot of information about your people, Lenn, but… does your village keep any lights on during the night?”
I thought about it for a moment.
“Not many. We use candles in our homes, but large fires were off-limits. Any smoke would rise into the air and show any Iatvi for miles where we were. The warriors sometimes used electric lights while they patrolled, but they keep them very dim.”
“Electric lights?” Ian asked. “How?”
“Batteries,” I answered. “Strapped to their backs and wired to a colored bulb. At least, they were colored if the gatherers couldn’t find white. Your holiday… is it… Christ-mas?”
I made a sudden connection.
“You mean… the holiday is about Christ? Jesus?”
“It certainly is,” James said.
“Oh, uh, anyway… “ I said, getting back to the point. “The gatherers would collect electric lights during the summer and store them for use later in the year. If there’s any way your night-vision… bin-ock-u-lars…”
“Binoculars,” Ian said.
“Yeah, your night vision binoculars. If there was any way you could see where the village moved, you should look for those lights near the ground at night.”
James pursed his lips.
“If you had to guess a direction,” he said. “Any direction at all, where would you say your old village is?”
I filled my cheeks with air, and blew it all out with a sigh. I tried to wrap my mind around my week-long journey towards the city, crawling down cliffs, walking through brush, and finally floating down the cold river…
“As I walked and swam, I… I always had the morning sun on my… “
I paused, looking over at Charsi. She watched me patiently, no longer afraid.
“…over my left shoulder. By sundown, it was off to the right. As much as I could, I traveled straight towards town, and even the river aimed right at it… for the most part.”
For a moment, James did mental and geographical gymnastics trying to figure out where I’d come from.
“So… Morning over your left shoulder… Behind it, then to the side?”
I nodded. James rotated himself.
“So you would have been walking… southeast? So, northeast. I imagine the ‘river’ followed a trail?” James asked.
I nodded again.
“Sometimes. I saw quite a few Iatvi cars and trucks, and I did most of my walking at night.”
“Cheyenne Creek?” James said, looking at Catherine. “Ian, you found him near the clinic, right?”
“Pretty close, yeah.”
“This sounds tricky,” Catherine said. “A lot of different streams flow into Cheyenne. If you remember, Lenn, did you live in a very rocky place? Up on the cliffs?”
“Yes,” I said. “The village was up on a pretty high mountain. Water became scarce about a year ago… and, I know this may sound silly, but I may as well mention it… it became a lot easier to breathe as I floated down the river. I only say it because a lot of the gatherers say the same thing.”
“No, that’s good to know,” James said. “So. High altitude, northwest, up on a mountain.”
“And far away from Iatvi trails,” I said.
“Well, it’s the most obvious mountain, then.”
“Mount Rosa,” Catherine said with a nod. “That’s not an easy hike.”
“No it isn’t. Especially if it’s far from established trails.”
“Getting down was the hard part,” I said. “Once I was off the steep angle and next to the… creek? I suppose it’s a river to me… but once I was off the mountain and floating, it became much easier.”
“How long did the ‘getting down’ take you?” James asked me.
“A day and a night… Although, I could be wrong. I was… pretty distracted after… everything.”
“I can only imagine,” Catherine said.
Then the crucial detail came to my mind.
“Oh, oh…” I said. “I do remember something odd. It wasn’t long after I found the river. It was the first time I had to cross a Iatvi trail after the ground became a little flat, and off to my side… my left side… was a tunnel. It wasn’t natural, dug right out of the rock, long enough that I could only see a small light at the other end. I imagined a vehicle driving straight through it, so I hurried as fast as I could further downstream.”
“Excellent,” James said. “Northwest near Mt. Rosa, next to Cheyenne Creek, at least close enough to a tunnel that we might be able to use that as a starting point. That seems pretty specific to me.”
“Fantastic,” Catherine said.
“But… the hard part comes after,” I said, looking down. “Once we find the old village, who’s to say we find which direction they went?”
“You said they were looking for a place with water, far from human roads and trails? Catherine’s right, that might be tricky, considering how popular it is up there for hikers. But it may be as easy as finding the closest water source from where your old village was. Don’t you think?”
“I don’t know. I never heard what Elder Ordi had in mind, but moving the whole village, with men, women, and children… They would have avoided animal trails, or crossed them only at night. If they wanted to, they could be miles away from the village in any direction. But traveling with everyone, carrying everything…”
“They wouldn’t actually go that far away, right?” Ian said. “It would be dangerous with animals, or hard to find food.”
“I just don’t know.”
“Don’t give up hope right away, Lenn,” Catherine said. “We’ll find them. We’ll use as many tools as we can get our hands on. And with Eliza and all of us, we’ll hike up there as often as we can.”
“Oh boy,” James said, grinning and stretching his arms. “Hiking! Hah, I’m not young anymore.”
“Me neither,” Catherine admitted with a laugh.
“But I am!” Ian said. “And Eliza is, too!”
“I am, too!” Juni said.
“And me,” Charsi added.
Catherine and James both smiled.
“If we have to go camping, we go camping,” James said.
“Can you take time off work?” Catherine asked.
“I’ll have to check my schedule. I’d say I’m due for it. Tyler will have to take over for a few days.”
“Or a week,” Catherine said, placing a hand on her husband’s shoulder.
“Or two weeks?” Ian said.
Everyone looked at Juni. He withdrew and turned red.
“Um… sorry,” he whispered.
“It sounded good to me,” Ian laughed, patting Juni’s head.
“Whatever it takes,” James said with a sure nod. “Right, Lenn? Whatever it takes to reunite you and Aria.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head.
“This is… unbelievable. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have help…”
I fell silent.
“It’s what family does,” Ian said. “Right, Dad?”
“You bet, kiddo,” James said, and James held up his hand in the air above us. Ian leaned forwards and slapped his father’s hand in a high five. It made the kids jump, but I looked their way and they didn’t appear fearful. In fact, Juni lifted his own hand, and Ian offered his finger for him to hit.
“We’ll make a plan,” Catherine said. “We might wait until Eliza comes back from her trip, but that will give us time to set everything in order. I’ll call her and let her know what’s going on.”
“Aunt Catherine?” Charsi said. “Um… can I talk to Eliza, too?”
“You sure can,” she said. “Do you want to go right now? See if we can reach her?”
Charsi nodded, and stood up to be raised away.
“We’ll find her, Lenn,” Ian said with a smile. “I know it.”
“Ven noviken devi,” I said, looking at Juni and then up at Ian. “Serditol. You’re all amazing.”
Juni pointed at me.
“No Iatnasi. Only English.”
“Silly kani,” I growled with a grin on my face. I stuck my tongue out at him and all he did was laugh.
Ian’s family weren’t the only ones that had been taught about this ‘gospel’. Apparently, Eliza had been teaching Juni and Charsi about it as well. Much earlier than I would have preferred, Ian knocked on the guest room door and announced to Charsi and I that it was time to have a lesson before the Iatvi went to church. My mind was still fuzzy when I looked at the clock: 7:45 AM. Charsi was also fairly disoriented, but we both obeyed and wandered through the kitchen to Ian’s room.
I crutched over, and expected to see Catherine and James inside. Interestingly, they were not. I asked Ian where they had gone.
“They went to a teacher’s meeting at church,” he said, taking a seat on his bed next to a sleepy, bare-chested, and hair-tangled Juni. Ian himself still wore his flannel bottoms and a sleeveless shirt. “But they wanted me to ask you if you wanted to have a quick lesson before I go at nine. That way, you can go back to sleep, and when I come home, we can eat lunch and play.”
“Or write your paper,” I said.
Ian’s shoulders fell.
“Oh… dang it. I forgot.”
I looked at Charsi, who shivered from the air conditioning in her loose-fitting pajamas.
“I know I’m complaining,” I said to Ian, yawning. “But aren’t you the one who said it’s a bit early to learn anything?”
“This is what Eliza and us do,” she said. “Only… her church is at ten-thirty.”
“Aww, lucky,” Ian said, yawning from my infectious example. “I think we’re changing to noon next year. At least, I hope we’re changing to noon next year.”
“I like church,” Charsi said as we walked towards Ian and Juni. “It’s nice to listen to the Iatvi talk about Heavenly Father.”
I frowned, and Ian frowned with me.
“Wait…You go to church? How?” I asked. “Eliza doesn’t… stuff you in her purse, does she?”
“The green backpack,” Juni said. “It’s comfy… unless it’s really hot. Eliza lets us bring bread and water so we can pretend to take the sacrament.”
“Really?” Ian said, his eyes all lit up. “That’s so cool. But… how do you bring water? You don’t have tiny cups, do you?”
Juni pointed over to Ian’s bedside table.
“Sure,” Ian said, leaning forward and reaching clear over Juni. He picked up the plastic bag in his hand and set it next to the boy, who then crawled inside to grab a grey fabric satchel. Unfastening the front flap from the single blue pearlescent button, he opened and rummaged through it until he produced the smallest glass bottle I’d ever seen. Topped off with a cork, Juni could easily hold it with both hands. He popped the top and took a big gulp of the bottle’s clear liquid.
“Ah. Bodlan?” he said. “Er, I mean… See? Eliza got us these.”
“Can I see?” Ian asked. Juni nodded and handed him the bottle. Unlabeled and clear, Ian held it between his thumb and forefinger. He stirred it around, then tilted it sideways. A large droplet of water fell onto his lap.
“Yulda!” Juni said, standing and pointing at him. “Neh se yode!”
“Oops,” Ian said, making a face. He quickly handed the bottle back to Juni. “Sorry. It came out faster than I thought it would.”
“Ange lai se yodir?” Juni asked.
“Juni,” I growled.
“I don’t know the words!” Juni responded by palming his forehead in frustration. “Sorry, I can’t… neh angia lai aerir fade.”
I scratched my forehead.
“Sorry, I’m probably being too hard on you. You want me to translate?”
“Um… sia, kaldi…”
“Don’t worry, Juni, I’ll fill it back up after we’re done,” Ian said. “Kaldi… what does kaldi mean?”
“Oh yeah. It’s too early for remembering.”
Charsi and I took a seat on the floor in front of Ian as he turned and produced a book from behind him. The front page read: “Come, Follow Me”.
“I don’t think I’ll read the whole lesson, they can be kind of long. Maybe just the first chapter. Sound good?”
“Is it okay if I read the rest of it later? That book isn’t in your phone, is it?” I asked. “Like the Mormon book?”
“Book of Mormon,” Ian whined, lifting his foot and pointing his toes at me. “When are you gonna get that right?”
I took my crutch and poked the middle one.
“You know I say that just to bother you,” I said with a smile.
“Uh-huh,” Ian replied, smiling back.
Ian’s phone spoke the chapter from the Bible, something called Acts. Whose acts this book referenced, I didn’t immediately understand. The complex scripture talked about a myriad of places that I had never heard of before: Lystra, Iconium, Phrygia, Galatia… on and on and on, I had no clue. Two men, Paul and Silas, I supposed were prophets that went around to all of these places and baptized people. They were whipped (the book called them “stripes”) and beaten, put in jail… and then, by some incredible coincidence, an earthquake made the entire jail crumble around them. But they didn’t just escape and run away. The guard was ready to kill himself for failing to do his job (as if he could have expected an earthquake to happen). Paul and Silas said all he had to do was believe in Jesus, and he and his house – not the house itself, but his family – would be saved.
“Are prophets put in jail today?” I asked.
Ian shook his head.
“No. They’re really important, and they do service for all sorts of people, like helping the poor and giving food and water to people in natural disasters. I think everybody in the world likes them too much for all the good they do.”
“Natural disasters… like earthquakes, floods?”
“Um-hmm,” Ian said.
“Well, you helped me in a flood, so that makes you as good as a prophet,” I said with a grin.
“Nah, I’m not all that good,” he replied. “Maybe one day.”
“I wish I could be baptized,” Charsi said, looking at me. “Eliza says that if you’re baptized, you get to have the Holy Ghost to help you for the rest of your life.”
“If you stay good,” Juni said.
“Right,” Ian replied.
“Well, why not?” I asked. “All you need is water, right?”
“Not exactly,” Charsi said.
“Yeah,” Ian continued. “You can only get baptized by someone with the priesthood. Dad does, and he baptized me.”
“It’s like God calling you to do what He would do,” Ian said. “It’s something someone gives you. When I turn twelve, Dad will give me the priesthood and make me a deacon.”
“I wish I had priesthood, too,” Juni said. “Then I could baptize. I think.”
“But you have to do things like go to church. And you have to have permission,” Charsi said, pointing. “Right, Ian?”
“Permission, huh. So I guess James can’t just baptize us.”
Charsi shook her head.
“That’s what Eliza worries about. That we can’t go to see a bishop and stay hidden at the same time. She keeps saying she’s thinking about it, but… I don’t know if it will happen. Xande keeps telling Eliza no.”
“Hmm,” I said, itching my nose. “I get that. But… is it really that important to be baptized? It’s not like repentance, is it? Where you have to be baptized again and again?”
“Nah, just once,” Ian said. “But it’s super important. It’s the first thing you have to do to follow Jesus. He was baptized too, so we follow His example.”
“And we can’t be a family forever if we don’t get baptized,” Charsi said, her brow furrowed. “It makes me scared… that I’ll never see Eliza again if we die. I want to be part of Eliza’s family for real.”
“What?” My eyes went back and forth from Charsi to Ian. “But… how does that work? If we all go to heaven, that won’t matter, will it?”
“I don’t know,” Ian said. “Dad knows more than me. But that’s why you go to places called temples to be sealed together as a family. I was sealed to Mom and Dad when they adopted me; that’s what the picture you saw in the hallway was about. But, if you wanted to be part of our family… that would mean more people would know about you.”
A terrible thought struck me.
“What about Aria?” I whispered. “And our child? If we’re not… what is it? ‘Sealed’?”
“Then I won’t see either of them again after we die?”
Ian’s expression turned somber.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t like that,” I said, looking down at the floor. “Not at all. If Heavenly Father is so good, then he wouldn’t do that to Aria and I. We’ve already suffered so much. Why would a Heavenly Father do that?”
“Don’t give up,” Charsi said, taking my hand. “Heavenly Father is good to everyone, even us. Maybe we’ll be able to be one big family for real someday.”
“But when Aria comes,” Juni said. “We can start being a family, right?”
“Yeah,” Ian said.
“I guess. I’m not sure I believe all this, but… I just hope everything turns out okay.”
“It will,” Ian said with a nod.
“Yeah, it will,” Charsi agreed.
“Li angah Ian lai viar lia indiata cadastol, anganem rundi!” Juni said cheerfully. “Um… right?”
“What did you say?” Ian asked.
“Uhh…” Juni pushed his tongue behind his cheek.
“He said that If Ian can be in a forever family, we can too,” Charsi said. “And I believe that.”
Sunday went on in a very peaceful and quiet way. I really enjoyed Sundays in the Petersen home, actually. In the village, every day was filled with work and more work, always something to clean, always something to organize, always something to teach and to gather. But Sundays in the Iatvi home – what Ian referred to as “keeping the Sabbath day holy” – were days of rest and study, and even Juni and Charsi seemed to enjoy the low-key energy of their new environment.
After he came home from church, I helped Ian write and complete his paper on his family’s computer downstairs in the TV room. While Juni and Charsi watched television and bothered each other like all brothers and sisters do, I watched Ian’s fingers dance across a keyboard, a large field of letters and numbers that seemed arranged in the most complicated rows imaginable. Despite this, Ian had little problem speeding through all of his words, organizing everything in the same way I kept notes. I told him not to rely too much on me, as he wouldn’t learn anything if he didn’t explain everything in his own way. Come to find out this was better advice than I anticipated, as Ian’s teacher had deducted a few points from his previous papers because it sounded like “his parents had helped him write it”. What did this teacher expect? A badly-worded paper where Ian would struggle and learn very little? My opinion of his teacher went down a peg after that.
If I had Charsi and Juni in my English class at the village, I would describe them both very differently. Charsi was very studious and loved reading and writing almost as much as I did. Juni, on the other hand, was very physical and hands-on. I guessed studying would be difficult for him, if his abilities to speak English were any indication. I was eager to help them both, though, if speaking and writing English was truly what they wanted. After all, how long did it take me to speak English as well as you did?
After Ian’s paper was finished, we all returned to Ian’s room and separated into our own activities. Up upon Ian’s cluttered desk, I studied more of the Mormon book (hah hah) and Charsi used graphite to draw on a few of Ian’s white postcards. The two boys dove headfirst into Ian’s video games, with the little one sitting in the chair and the big one upon the ground. Juni’s excitement was very apparent, and their collective laughing and shouting at the frantic action on the screen made Charsi and I chuckle to each other. When I had finally reached the next book called Third Nephi (of four, apparently), Ian turned and called me over.
“Lenn!” he said. I looked up, and in his hand was a familiar gray controller waving at me. “Come on, we need you! This guy’s hard!”
“Yeah Lenn! Keme lodsa!”
I peered at Charsi, who noticed my pained expression.
“I think you have to,” she said with a grin.
“Hey guys,” I called to them. “Charsi says she’ll come play instead of me!”
“No way!” Charsi shook her head rapidly. “I didn’t say that!”
“Nope, it has to be you, Lenn!” Ian said, standing to his feet. Ian crossed his room in a heartbeat. Charsi and I hesitated when the boy’s shadow overtook us, and we both slid backwards. He recognized what he was doing, and his mischievous grin disappeared.
“Uh-oh,” he whispered, shrinking himself to sit on his bed. “I scared you again.”
I gathered myself.
“Just a bit,” I answered, rubbing my nose. Beside me, Charsi’s eyes were wide as plates.
“I don’t mean to…” he said quietly. He growled at himself. “Why am I not good at this?”
“Because you’re a monster,” I said, which would no doubt have brought a frown to the boy’s face if I hadn’t had a pleasant one on mine. “But a kind monster. And a quick one. It’s my fault that I panic… ”
I turned and held out my hand to Charsi.
“Sorry, Ian,” she said. “I panic, too… Even Eliza scares me sometimes.”
“Come on, you big Iatvi,” I said, standing. “If we’re gonna play, let’s play. Though I can’t promise I’ll be useful.”
“Yay!” shouted Juni. I could see his long blond hair and green eyes peeking around the corner.
“You sure?” Ian asked. “I mean, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”
“Don’t worry. Let’s play. And then Charsi will play after me.”
“Nope, nope!” she said cheerfully, descending into her drawing again.
“Come on, Sisi!”
“Nope!” she repeated, not even looking at her brother.
That night, the kids decided to change sleeping spots. Specifically, Juni. He didn’t say why at first, but when I got them settled in the guest room, he sadly reported that Ian did indeed snore, and his nerves kept him up all night. He asked me not to tell Ian, and I smiled as I promised I wouldn’t. The room was dark, save for the dim light of the kitchen ceiling fixtures outside. When I finally turned to lay myself down, a great shadow appeared, peering through the door.
It was Ian.
“…can I talk to you?”
I looked at Juni and Charsi, who appeared unsure as they laid beneath their blankets.
“Yeah,” I answered. “In here, or…?”
“In my room,” he said. “I can pick you up if you’re tired.”
I decided he had better, and the boy placed me in his arms before departing the room, leaving an inch of space in the doorway and allowing the Iatili to fall sleep. He took me into his room and laid down on his bed as he placed me next to him. My surroundings were warm as an electric blanket, as was the human boy before me; he wore a light-blue shirt, and his scent had returned; at least he had remembered to brush his teeth. I looked at his face as he laid sideways, once again folding his arms around himself.
“I did it again,” he said.
“Did what again?” I sat down before him.
“Bothering you and scaring you. And Charsi and Juni. I’m too big. I hate this. I don’t like scaring everybody.”
“I know, I know,” Ian said, closing his eyes shut. “I don’t mean to be sad. I haven’t really had friends before, and I don’t want to mess it up.”
“It’s when you get excited,” I told him. “But that’s not a bad thing. Everything’s new for everybody. I just get a little nervous. You’re fast for something so big. It takes me a while to cross your room, but you take two steps and you’re there.”
“I guess I’ll go slow from now on.”
“But you remember how you grabbed me when you thought Eliza would see me? I knew exactly what you were doing. I thought you were being silly, but to you, it was life or death. You protected me. That’s when speed is useful.”
He frowned, itching his shoulder.
“How do I know what one I should do?”
“I think you’ll get it,” I said. “It just takes practice. I trust you.”
“But I don’t trust me.”
I laughed, which I think caught him off-guard.
“That’s not even the point. If you think you’re going to push me away by scaring me, little boy, you’ve got it all wrong. A few months ago, you would have sent me screaming just by looking at me. But now I know you.”
Ian nervously adjusted his position on the bed.
“You know me?”
“Come on, give me some credit. Just because you’re a monster doesn’t mean you haven’t become special to me.”
Ian whined, drawing a finger upon his mattress. “I don’t like it when you call me a monster.”
A pit formed in my stomach. I did say it a lot.
“Oh.” I said, sitting forwards. “Sorry, I won’t say that anymore. Promise.”
Ian said nothing in response.
“I’ll tell you what I told Charsi. You’re afraid you would lose us if you scared us badly enough. If you scared me bad enough. Right?”
“Or if I hurt you, or worse… you’d never forgive me.”
“You believe that?”
Ian didn’t hesitate to give me a nod.
“Well, too bad,” I said. “You can’t get rid of me.”
I expected him to grow more confused, but instead he looked at me with an innocent kind of pain.
“Help me up,” I told him, raising my arms. I took the hand he offered me, balancing on the weak legs that had kept me upright all day. His hand floated away, and I stepped towards his chest with a smile. I put my hands against his soft skin and pushed. “Roll over, kani.”
“Just do it, come on.”
He followed my command, laying on his back. I then stepped over and above his shoulder and clambered up, using his collarbone as a wobbling handhold. To say this was difficult for me would be an understatement, but at least I had his shirt to cling to. I managed it as I heard and felt a nervous laugh emerge from the Iatvi.
“This is weird,” Ian said, peering at me.
“You don’t have to tell me,” I grunted back, finally up enough that I could scuttle on my bottom. I reached the center of his chest as Ian’s eyes focused directly at me, his neck all scrunched up.
“I dunno,” I said. “You tell me.”
I scooted forwards and pushed my bare feet against his chin. He threw his head back.
“Eww!” he said. “Don’t do that! Your feet are cold!”
“Yeah. What are you going to do about it?”
Ian looked back at me as well as he could without lowering his head. But then his entertaining smile faded and he looked away.
“I… I don’t want to do anything.”
“Nope, nope,” I said, lifting myself. My knee bent backwards a bit, and I hissed, but I didn’t allow myself to stop. Now limping, I walked down his chest towards his stomach. Without explanation or excuse, I “jumped” off the stability of his sternum and landed front-first onto the squishy surface. I heard an “oof” behind me. For a moment, I laid there unmoving, listening to his stomach blurbling beneath me. Everything in me told me this was the strangest thing I’d ever done.
“What are you going to do about this?” I asked.
I attempted to scratch him through his shirt in a vain attempt to tickle him. I’d never been able to do it, exactly. And I didn’t seem to succeed here.
“Stop it,” he growled. “Don’t tickle me.”
“I’m supposed to,” I said simply. “It’s what older brothers do.”
Then, before I could continue much longer, I felt a set of powerful fingers grab hold of me. They dragged me backwards along the surface of the shirt until I felt myself float upwards. And upside-down. Blood rushed into my head immediately as I looked downwards at Ian’s face.
“You’re so weird!”
“You gonna put me down, kani?” I asked, my voice squashed like rubber.
“Just so you can try it again? No.”
“So I’m just going to float here until my face turns purple?”
Ian’s smile turned into a frown. His securing hand then descended and I felt myself drape back down onto Ian’s chest. The fingers fell away, and I rose to see Ian’s eyes looking away from me, off to the side.
“Ian…” I grunted.
I rose to my feet again, now certain that my left leg was going to fall off.
“You’re standing on my throat,” Ian gurgled. I certainly was; it felt like balancing on a cylinder that didn’t stop wobbling.
Everything was now within my arm’s reach. Both my hands played Ian’s upper lip like a drum. It grabbed Ian’s attention, but he pursed his lips and continued attempting to ignore me. I was determined. My drumming moved to the tip of Ian’s nose, and I hummed to myself. He refused to be amused, and the air that blew through his nostrils rushed outwards as if he could sneeze me away.
“Ian, stop acting this way.”
Out of slight frustration, I grabbed the inner edges of the curved nose, each hand to a hole, and yanked upwards.
“Ow!” Ian said, his entire head fighting away. The edge of his hand pushed me sideways, and I lost my balance, nearly rolling off his neck. He recovered me and hauled me back onto his chest. “Ahh! Lenn, I’m sorry!”
“Ian,” I growled, grunting to my feet again. I bent down and looked straight at him. “That’s enough. No more ‘sorry’.” I waved my arms. “Olem, I’m trying to make you laugh!”
Ian’s gaze floated away.
“I may be crooked,” I continued, “But I’m tougher than you think I am. What do I have to do to convince you that I’m not going to stop being your friend?”
He didn’t answer me.
“Well,” I groaned. I fell backwards. “My legs are dead. I can’t stand up on my own.”
Ian’s hand curled around me again, lifting me above his face and placing me gently on top of his forehead. My legs couldn’t help but drape over his eyes, my feet pressing against the upper edges of his cheeks.
“Uh. Sorry. I don’t quite fit up here.”
“You know I can’t fold my legs.”
“So, what. You gonna answer my question? What do I have to do to convince you?”
“This isn’t a yes or no question.”
“So now you’re joking with me?”
I sighed, folding my arms.
“What am I going to do with you?”
“Be my big brother,” he answered. “For as long as you can.”
“As long as I can? What happened to ‘families are forever’?”
“I don’t think it counts.”
“What do you mean? Of course it counts. You want James and Catherine to adopt me like they adopted you? Would that make it count?”
“But without being baptized… What if I don’t see you again if I die?”
“Come on, kid,” I said, patting the bridge of his nose. “You’re thinking too far ahead.”
Ian remained silent.
“You saved me from dying. That means my life is basically yours. Did you think about that?”
“I guess not,” Ian said, slightly shaking his head back and forth. I rode it like the edge of a teeter-totter.
“If heaven exists, then I know you’re going to be there.” I said. “Then Heavenly Father will know how much you’ve done for me. I’m sure He’ll know right where you are. If I make it somehow, I’ll search for you. I’ll bring Aria, too, she’s already perfect anyway.”
Ian let out a short laugh.
“If I make it there,” I said. “We’ll still be brothers?”
From my seat, I could feel the furrows in Ian’s brow relax.
“You’re still going to scare me sometimes, you know.”
“I won’t do it on purpose.”
“Even if you’re teasing me?”
“I’ll try not to.”
“Good enough. It’s bad for my poor heart.”
“I don’t want to give you a heart attack.”
Fingers again lifted me into the air, this time with both hands, spinning me around with dizzying dexterity. The thumbs then became a loose belt, cushioning me as best they could. Illuminated by the lamp on the table, I looked into the boy’s eyes that watched me back with the same amount of wonder that he always showed.
“I’ve never met a boy quite like you,” I told him, bending forwards. “Never mind the whole ‘saving my life’ part. Yul, look at me, I am tiny…”
I looked over Ian’s thumbs to see my feet dangle. Ian saw my face, and gently rocked me and my legs back and forth.
“And you don’t weigh much.”
“I weigh more than when I showed up. You probably saved me from starving to death, too. So that’s two I owe you.”
“Did I ever tell you why I headed towards town when I left the village?”
“Nuh-uh,” Ian said, shaking his head.
“I didn’t want to be eaten by an animal like I thought Xande had. I didn’t want to be run over by an Iatvi car, though I guess that would have been quick. I absolutely did not want to drown.”
“Could have fooled me.”
“You know what I wanted instead?” I asked, ignoring him. “I heard from the gatherers that Iatvi had a special gas that you can’t see, can’t really smell or taste, but if you breathe enough of it, your head would get dizzy, you’d fall asleep, and you’d just die. Completely painless.”
“Lenn!” The belt around me tightened. “Why would you kill yourself?”
“Ian, I was hopeless. I would never see Aria again, so I would find a way to fall asleep and just stop being. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“You wouldn’t have asked somebody for help?”
I shook my head with vigor.
“I didn’t dare. I wasn’t brave enough. I’m… still not brave enough, since you can still… what’s the phrase…? Get the drop on me? Is that what it is?”
“Huh?” Ian tilted his head.
“You can still take me by surprise, frighten me. Even you.”
He looked away.
“It’s really not your fault. Gatherers have been killed or injured in so many ways. You wouldn’t believe the stories I was told as a child. Have I mentioned how glad I am that you don’t own a dog or cat?”
I nodded, finding Ian’s hands a relaxing place to hang.
“You know what?” Ian asked.
“I need to tell you something.”
“When I was really little,” Ian said. “Like, four or five… I kinda remember something that happened that scared my mom and dad really bad. It was night, and I don’t know why, but I went outside and got lost. I didn’t recognize my street in the dark, so I just sat down on the sidewalk and cried. That’s when someone talked to me, out of the bushes behind me. He had a really deep voice, and he told me that everything was going to be all right. I couldn’t see who it was, but I knew it wasn’t a regular person. I thought it was an angel or something.”
“You mean… a Iatili?”
“It had to be. I didn’t see him, but he told me to go and sit underneath one of the lamp posts on the corner, and that my mom and dad would find me soon. I did what he told me, and it only took a few minutes for Dad to see me under the light and take me back home. I was too young to think about it again until now. But I know it had to be a Iatili.”
“Huh,” I said. “That’s amazing. I wonder who it was.”
“I dunno. I wish I had said thank you.”
“Maybe it’s like Catherine said. Maybe Iatvi help Iatili more than we think. And Iatili help Iatvi. Maybe I should have gone to find a boy or girl, or someone like Eliza. Maybe someone would have helped me like you do.”
“But then you wouldn’t be my big brother now.”
I gave Ian a soft smile.
“That’s true.” I traced the crease between Ian’s thumb. “Having my throat torn open was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Ooh, no… Don’t say that.”
“It’s true, isn’t it?”
“No way.” He actually laughed. “Maybe Aaron or Chris would have found you anyway, in a bush or something.”
“Maybe,” I said. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to limp into a bush in time.”
“Did you even have crutches to help you get down the mountain?”
“No, I didn’t. Elder Ordi never gave me a chance to get anything.” I pointed down. “I had ugly shoes, but I lost them in the river. It’s a miracle I didn’t get sick after all of this, either. I drank from the river. And I didn’t have food. I almost went without any, until I became so tired that I had to eat moss as I went.”
Ian’s face withered and he stuck his tongue out.
“Oh, why?! Why moss? Wasn’t it disgusting?”
“Very much yes. Raw is awful. You have to cook it first.”
“Cook it? But why would you eat it at all?”
“There wasn’t anything else,” I said. “I wasn’t about to eat bugs.”
“No wonder you were so skinny.”
“Uh-huh. No gross-or-ruh stores for us.”
“You mean grocery stores.”
“That makes me think of times when Mom would go to those fancy food stores where everything is healthy and expensive. She had us try these things called, um… ‘bean sprouts’. It looked like a pile of white worms, and tasted like grass. It wasn’t my favorite.”
“I’d probably like them.”
“Yeah, you would.”
We both laughed and fell silent as Ian studied me. I maintained a contented look.
Ian blinked a few times.
“I don’t know. I just… I don’t want you to leave. That’s all.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I replied with a chuckle. “Where would I go?”
“What about when Aria comes? She won’t make you go, will she?”
“Where would we go? Up the mountain with the foxes and the hawks? Behind a dumpster somewhere? Once she meets you, Ian, she’ll feel the same way I do. I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”
“I hope so. I just-”
Ian rose upwards, and we both looked towards the door. Upon the floor were a pair of Iatili kids, both very dressed for sleep but both shivering in uncertainty.
“Hi guys,” Ian said, placing me back down to sit on the bed. “Do you need anything?”
They remained quiet for a moment, Charsi hiding behind Juni.
“…we didn’t… do anything wrong, did we?”
I smiled up at Ian, and he did the same for me.
“Nope,” Ian said. “I just wanted to talk to Lenn about stuff.”
“Iliam qa umov. Ian ys ke karanis odanetol,” I told them. “Vis hostai.”
“…you do?” Charsi asked.
“What did you tell them?”
“I told them that we have a lot of fears just like them. But we’ll work it out. Won’t we?”
Ian nodded, looking at Juni and Charsi.
Ian lifted me to the kitchen island, and I leaned against his hand as Eliza took Juni and Charsi in turn to stand next to us. I could see the apprehension in Juni’s face as he stood in the metaphorical shadow of the ten-year old ka. Charsi likewise clung tight to her brother’s arm for courage and support.
“How does everyone like watermelon?” Catherine asked, standing opposite the counter from us.
I nodded. Remaining silent, the kids did too.
“Jun, Sisi,” Eliza said, leaning against the counter. “Ian’s going to take good care of you while I’m gone this week. He has school, but when he’s home, he’ll get you everything you need. I know I’m the only Iatvi you’ve known, but I promise you, Ian is the greatest ka in the world, and the best babysitter you’ll ever have.”
Ian bent down low, his eyes level to Juni’s, peering over his fingers.
“I hope we can be friends.”
I gave him a small smile, despite the depression growing in me. He had the same glint in his eye that he had the first day he knew me.
“Baby… sitter?” Charsi asked, her eyes nervously looking up to Eliza. “I’m not a baby.”
“Me neither,” Juni said.
“That’s what I said,” I replied. “He may be the Iatvi in charge, but it’s more like we’re babysitting him.”
“Hey, that’s not fair,” Ian said, his chin rising to the surface. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Ian, I’m teasing. You don’t have to worry about this katol. He takes care of me, and that’s saying some- ouch… Ian, can you… help me sit?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah,” he said. I leaned on his thumb until I descended and sat on my bottom; my legs were still shaking from my encounter with Xande, and they were in no mood to be stood upon.
“Eliza told us you can’t walk very well.”
I looked at Charsi.
“I haven’t had much strength in my legs since I was very young. Aria has cared for me, and Ian’s been a great help to me since I came here.”
“I accidentally hurt Lenn…” Ian said. “But I’ve learned a lot about being careful.”
“Yup,” I agreed. “You’ll like this kid. He’s loud and goofy, but he’s very kind.”
“I’m not goofy,” Ian argued. When he saw the kids’ reaction to his volume as he stood above them, he then put a hand to his mouth. “Oh. Uh… I am loud, though.”
“And you’ve got dirt on your face, just like Eliza,” Juni said, pointing to the bridge of his own nose.
Ian tried to rub off the ‘dirt’, but Eliza poked his cheek.
“He means your freckles.”
“Oh. Yup. Iatili don’t have freckles?”
“Nuh-uh,” Juni said, and Charsi shook her head along with him.
“Doesn’t sound like it,” Eliza said.
“Really? I could have sworn some of the kids at my village had freckles… Maybe it really was dirt.”
“But look at Charsi,” Eliza said, pointing to the little girl. “Black hair, thinner eyes. Doesn’t she look a little Asian to you? Isn’t that interesting?”
Ian bent down low and examined her. Of course, he did so a little too closely. Charsi made a soft squeak and covered her face with her hands, leaning into Juni’s arm.
“Sorry, I’m sorry!” Ian said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Ian,” Juni said, waving at him. “Kemas.”
“Uh, come here.”
Ian bent his head down.
“No, sadi,” Juni said.
“English please, Juni,” Eliza said.
“Sorry… Um, Ian, closer.”
“Oh, uh… like this?”
Ian hovered within an arm’s length away from the very brave Iatili. Ian’s eyes crossed. Juni’s hand gently slid across the point of Ian’s nose. He next dared to touch the edge of Ian’s upper lip. This made the Iatvi boy quietly giggle, and in a flash, his tongue emerged; Juni recoiled away with a quick yelp. Undeterred, Juni’s concerned face turned to amusement as his fingers grabbed a handful of hair that fell over the ka’s eyes.
“Bodliel Charsi?” Juni said, nudging her from her frightened position. “He’s got dark hair like you. And really straight, not like Eliza’s.”
Charsi opened her eyes just long enough to see very large and bright blue-green Iatvi eyes within close proximity. She made another squeaking noise and hid back into Juni’s shoulder. Juni released Ian’s hair before Ian could complain.
“And look,” Eliza said, bending down and pointing to the very corner of Ian’s mouth. “He’s got a little dimple that shows up whenever he smiles. Just like you, Charsi.”
“I do not,” Ian said, unable to maintain a grumpy complexion. Just beside his toothy grin was a small imprint that bent downwards along the crease of his muscles. I hadn’t really noticed before.
“I see it,” Juni said, pointing.
Ian rose up and let out a puff of air, which made both Iatili kids react.
“Why is everybody looking at me?” he asked. “Go look at Lenn.”
“I look like any other Iatili,” I said, spreading out my legs, my mood darker than I intended. “And I’m as threatening as a wet rag. You’re the thing they haven’t seen before.”
“Yeah,” Juni said. “I’ve never met a ka Iatvi before. You’re ten?”
“I’ll be eleven on December 7th.”
Juni pouted his lips and parted his curled blonde hair from his eyes.
“I’m twelve. I think. I don’t know mine.”
“We’ve celebrated Juni and Charsi’s birthdays together in March, the same month I found them. I figured it was as good a time as any.”
“Here you go, Eliza,” Catherine said, turning from the far counter. “Here’s a few plates.”
Juni and Charsi took a seat, and the delicious fruit pieces were divided amongst us all. I wanted to talk to Eliza and the two kids, but… with everything that just occurred (not to mention the pulsing pain in my nose), I couldn’t bring myself to be pleasant and social. In all honesty, I wanted to go back into the dark corner between the bed and the bedside table, curl up, and sleep until all pain went away. Ian noticed my sudden silence, and rubbed my back with two fingers without any words.
Eating the watermelon was a bit difficult. While Catherine cut them up nice and small, I still dripped melon water all down my arms. It seemed Juni and Charsi were having similar difficulties. Seeing this, Catherine quickly grabbed the paper towels and handed them out.
“I’m still learning how to feed my little friends,” Catherine said to Eliza. “Have you figured out how to do it without making a mess?”
“Would you believe you can find silverware online that is small enough for them to use? I packed them into their bags. They’re adorable.”
“Wendalem,” Charsi said.
“Oh, good. I did.” Eliza leaned against the counter. “I’ve even been able to find furniture and beds they use for dollhouses. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re pretty cheap unless you want something really fancy looking. Charsi and I even made little bean bags that they use as chairs.”
“Oh, that sounds fun!” Catherine said. Juni and Charsi looked up at Catherine and nodded, both of them chewing.
“Unfortunately, no one makes clothing for Iatili. I’ve looked into custom clothing for dolls, but doll proportions are all wrong. That’s where I’m hoping you can help.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Catherine said with a wink.
“Hey kids, you’ll actually get to eat homecooked meals.” Eliza smiled at Catherine. “You know me, I’m terrible when it comes to cooking.”
“Nuh-uh, ‘Liza,” said Charsi quietly. “We eat really good food.”
“Right,” Eliza brushed the Iatili girl’s hair with her finger and thumb. “That’s because all we have at home is sugar cereal and cheese sticks.”
“And chicken,” Juni said. “Chicken… nuggles… nugglets? Is that how you say it?”
Ian nearly choked on the watermelon in his mouth.
“Chicken nugglets!” he finally swallowed. “I’m calling them that from now on.”
Juni laughed despite himself.
“Well, they’re not too different from regular kids, are they?” Catherine laughed.
“No they are not,” Eliza said, admiring them with her head resting on her arm.
“Okay, they should have everything they need,” Eliza said, bringing a pair of Iatili-sized plastic bags from the outside. “They’ve got a change of clothing, blankets, pillows, and what-not. They’re pretty independent, at least in my apartment. As long as they have the basics, they should be just fine. Especially with Ian and Lenn to watch after them.”
“We’ll take good care of them,” Catherine said.
“Um…” Ian said, pointing down at Juni and Charsi on the kitchen island. “How will they… uh… go to the bathroom?”
“Same way I do,” I said. “Except for bathing. They can probably do what I can’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just leave the bathroom sink on for them,” Eliza said. “Leave the stopper in so they don’t fall down the drain.”
“Olem, Eliza,” Juni moaned. “I’m not kani.”
“And I’m not kalni,” said Charsi.
“Eliza.” She looked my way, her smile fading only a touch as I spoke. “Did… Xande say anything when you went out there?”
“Other than him complaining that he’d die of heat stroke? No, he didn’t. He’s still fuming. I think the next conversation you’ll have with him will be over the phone. He can’t stab you that way.”
“I don’t know what I can say to make him change his mind about me. But whenever he wants to talk, tell him… I’ll be around. I’m not apologizing for anything, but he deserves to know what he’s missed since he left.”
“I’ll tell him that.”
Eliza sighed, returning her gaze down to ‘her’ kids.
“You two cool? Ready for a fun vacation?”
Their reactions were less than excitable. Juni looked up at Ian. Charsi only had eyes for Eliza. Her hands lifted upwards.
“I don’t want you to go…” she whispered, her voice breaking near tears.
Eliza reached out her hand, and Charsi embraced two of her fingers.
“Hey, you have nothing to worry about, kalnisi,” Eliza said. She bent down and gently kissed the top of the little girl’s head. My own head tilted and I couldn’t help but marvel: I had never expected to see any relationship like this in my life. “If all these big mean boys drive you crazy, then you can always hang out with Aunt Catherine. She’ll protect you just like I do.”
“That’s right, honey,” Catherine said, leaning across the counter and catching Charsi’s attention. “Do you like to draw? I have colored pencils and paint, or I’m sure I can find some fun books for you to read.”
Charsi turned to look up at Catherine, but her expression didn’t seem to change. Then Catherine gasped.
“Juni, Charsi, I’m going to make you some brand-new clothes. I’ll measure you from head to toe, and you can pick out your favorite colors to wear. How does that sound? And Charsi, maybe you would like to help me sew? We can make pretty little designs, whatever you would like.”
Both Iatili perked up.
“Clothes that will fit me?” Juni asked. “Really?”
“Yessir!” Catherine said with a laugh.
Charsi showed a little encouragement.
“Can I have a dress?” she whispered.
A tender expression appeared on Catherine’s face, one I hadn’t seen before. And there was little wonder I hadn’t, considering my own mother never shared it with me: the gentle smile of a mother prepared to say all the right things. I’ve seen it on your face a few times since, haven’t I?
Catherine reached for Charsi’s hand.
“Yes, you beautiful princess, we can absolutely make you a dress. Would you like to help me? Let’s make it together.”
Charsi’s eyes looked to Catherine, then back at Eliza.
“Go on, Sisi,” Eliza said. “Go have some fun. We can always talk on the phone whenever you want, okay?”
After a single moment of hesitation, Charsi released Eliza’s fingers and took Catherine’s with her hand.
“Hey Juni,” Ian said. “Want to come hang out with Lenn and me?”
Juni looked right up at Ian and nodded.
“You have games? I play games on Eliza’s phone, but they get boring. I want to see yours.”
“All right, you two,” Eliza said, her hands upon the counter. “It looks like you’re ready. I’m so excited for you guys! I know you’ll love it here. It will be much better than staying in a dark apartment for a week. Right?”
“Sia,” Juni said.
Charsi nodded but didn’t say a word.
“Okay,” Eliza said. She took the plastic bags, examined them for a moment, and then handed one to both Ian and Catherine. “This is for Juni, this is Sisi’s. And I think you’re all set.”
Catherine kindly offered to clean my shirt for me, and I accepted and removed it before asking Ian if he could take me back into the guest room to sleep. I’m sure he expected me to remain with him and Juni, but I wouldn’t have been very fun to be around at that moment. With my heartbeat still sounding out loud beneath my bruised nose, I quickly fell asleep under my cozy blankets and dreamed of you.
You might think this funny. But when we were kids, I never saw you as a “girl” exactly. In fact, I didn’t quite know what I thought. You were the only one our age brave enough to speak to me, and when you did, the taunting of the other kids didn’t deter you. If I were a different ka, I would have thought it was my good looks and quick wit that won you over. But I don’t think I had either of those things. If I were more pessimistic, I would wonder if I were just a curiosity… or a charity case. But you stayed. And together we became outcasts.
You had the choice. And you chose me. Not all at once, of course, we fought all the time. But you chose me, and I didn’t understand for years why. I only accepted it, and didn’t question it. Not out loud. Not because I didn’t want it, but because if I asked why I deserved your friendship, it might have gone away. When I finally saw you as a ‘woman’, I became even more afraid of finding the answer. You lost Xande, and you clung to me all the tighter. Yet I became distant without intending to. My family died, the village began to wither, the elder’s distrust for me intensified…
And it all came to that singular moment, sitting in the empty classroom, surrounded by scraps of torn papers, words, images, maps, and manuals we would never really comprehend on our own.
I finally asked you why. Do you remember what you said to me?
“Because you were worth the trouble,” you said.
We both laughed and our conversation carried on, but your answer mystified me. It wasn’t enough.
“I am here for you,” I told you. “And I am here because of you. But why me? Why did you pick me?”
I didn’t need to voice these doubts. They’d existed since our relationship began. But I needed to know. I needed something to lock into place, some logical or even physical reason for why you stayed with me. Why you endured the years of my pain with me. Why you endured years of your own.
We had never said it out loud before. We had never dared to, even in the dark during the rain. Even when we held each other close, hoping no one would care to find us.
“You’re part of me,” I said, with your hands grasping mine.
Before I could stop myself, the words emerged from me.
I love you.
My life hovered across a chasm, bound with no line that could save me but one. Before I could fall-
“Se ondia,” you called back to me as if we’d tripped over the same stone in the trail, your voice dancing across the words, ungainly as I did. You laughed, I laughed with you. And that night, I offered you everything I was, perhaps everything I’ll ever be.
I awoke in the Petersen home after that dream with tears in my eyes. I sat up and stared at my hands, yearning for you, willing you into existence just beyond that great white door beside the bed. Then I could tell you, again and again, se ondia, se ondia, without hesitation and without fear.
Strangely, when reality dawned upon me that the likelihood of you standing inside the Petersen’s home was infinitesimal, I felt no pain. Alone, I had no chance to find you. But Xande lived. He had found a family. And so did I, one I wanted you to be part of. If pure circumstance could reconnect Xande and I (my face to his fist, specifically), I could find you.
I could have called it stress-induced delirium if I wanted to. But waking from that dream, seeing my whole world again in my mind as plainly as if I had been there before you… Nothing held me down. Tears streamed down my face, but I didn’t cry. I laughed. I laughed like a child, taking the crutches that James had crafted for me and crawling off the side of the bed. Although I still felt pain from resting my entire weight under my arms, I lunged across the carpet and out the crack in the door, still laughing; I was almost dancing. Ian and Juni were in the kitchen when I emerged, and Ian said something in a panic, I didn’t hear him over myself. He raced around the kitchen island and dove towards me, and my crutches flew away as I collapsed into his hands.
“Lenn, you’re scaring me! Why are you laughing?”
I couldn’t stop. I wish you could have seen me. Or, maybe I don’t: you might have thought something in my mind snapped like a dry twig. When I finally found enough breath in me to speak, I could only form snippets of words.
“Lenn, keep it together!” Ian insisted, trying to be serious and composed. But I looked up at him, and saw that dimple. “What’s so funny?”
“I… I love her, Ian!” I screamed at the top of my stone-washboard voice. I think I even pounded my pathetic fists against the palms of the boy’s hands, not out of anger, but out of enthusiasm. “Damn it, I love her! I don’t care about anything else, I love her!”
“Who… Aria?” Ian asked with a clueless gasp, lifting me off of the ground. “You’re talking about Aria?”
“Of course I am, Ian!” I cried in pure joy. “And I’m going to find her!”
Ian’s smirk was unmistakable, sure as if I’d been a three-year old who thought they said something incredibly profound.
“What, by yourself?”
Life slapped me across the face.
“Well, uh…” I stumbled, wiping the tears away with the back of my hand. I swallowed, finally noticing that my airway did not appreciate my energy. “If… um… if you help me.”
Ian laughed out loud, and, taking me with a single hand, messed with my hair.
“You are the weirdest person I know,” he told me. “What’s gotten into you?”
“I don’t know, I…” I gasped. “I had a dream, and I… I saw her… I don’t care about Xande, I don’t care about my legs, I don’t care about this whole umovre da-th-this whole world! I’m going to find her, Ian! You’ll help me, won’t you?”
“Lenn, Lenn,” Ian said, sitting on the ground and placing me in his lap. “Calm down! I’m going to help you, I already said so! Are you okay? Xande didn’t damage your brain when he hit you, did he?”
I laughed, hard enough to hurt my throat again.
“Yes! I mean, no, no, I’m fine, kani, I’m… I mean, maybe he did hit me hard enough to… Ahh! I want you to meet her, Ian. I want you all to meet her. And I know you will. I know it now!”
“You had a dream about this?”
“It was… sort of, it was just… it was so real, like I was holding her close to me again…”
I wiped my eyes, and I saw Ian beaming at me.
“You sure you didn’t see a pillar of fire first?”
“No, I don’t think I did… but… but it was so real, I remembered everything…”
“Lenn?” said a small voice from atop the kitchen island. Ian and I looked and saw Juni on his hands and knees looking over the side. He then asked, quite innocently, “Have you gone crazy?”
Ian and I both laughed.
“He might have!”
“I hope not…” I said, patting the back of Ian’s hand. “I hope not…”
As a teacher and as a child myself, I’d seen children both shy and confident, disobedient or eager, cooperative or just plain mean. Ian had been correct about himself… Ian was surprisingly shy when it came to making a new friend. I watched Ian and Juni getting to know each other, talking with each other, making awkward jokes, and stumbling over Iatnasi and English. While Ian’s self-confidence level landed on the low end, there didn’t seem to be an end to Juni’s.
Ian seemed nervous to touch Juni; with his strength and dexterity, Juni didn’t appear to need much assistance. But when something was apparently beyond Juni’s reach, Ian didn’t quite know how to help. He acted just like Aaron, in fact. Did he dare make himself overbearing by doing everything for the Iatili boy, or did he leave Juni to his own abilities? With me, he had no such hang-ups since the help was obviously needed. Even though I could now amble across flat surfaces with my excellent crutches, I continued to struggle climbing.
Juni didn’t seem to notice Ian’s nervousness at all. Being older and very capable, the boldness he demonstrated immediately out of Eliza’s backpack only grew as he became accustomed to his new surroundings. Having been unconscious for the first two hours of their friendship, I saw a step ahead: Ian’s excitement at his new friend grew even as his hesitation did, and for Juni, this new world was thrilling.
As the afternoon sun streamed a sliver of light through the shades, Ian walked into his room, followed by Juni and I behind him. The Iatvi boy produced his phone from his pocket and collapsed front-first upon his bed. Juni raced ahead of me. Just like watching a squirrel race up an oak tree, Juni clambered up the side of Ian’s bed and, to my surprise, copied what I’d done the night before: he jumped right onto Ian’s back, walked up to Ian’s right shoulder, and stretched out on his stomach to see the screen in Ian’s hands.
“What are you going to watch?” Juni asked, steadying himself on Ian’s shoulder by grasping the Iatvi boy’s collar.
“Not sure,” Ian replied with a slight laugh, the insecurity of having the older boy so close painfully obvious on his face. “Lenn, you remember that paper I have to write for Monday? Do you know anything about history?”
I leaned on my right crutch and thought for a moment.
“I’m not sure I do,” I answered. “I’ve read news from magazines, but nothing that goes back very far. What kind of history?”
“Um, it’s called…”
From my perspective, I couldn’t see what else was on the bed. But Ian pointed at something and appeared to survey its contents.
“Nineteenth-century westward expansion of the United States.”
“Yul, eh… No, sorry. Are we in the west? I know this place is called ‘Color-aydo’, but I didn’t think it was particularly… west.”
“Yeah,” Ian said. “Sort of. A lot more west than New York. Or Washington D.C.”
“I don’t know where those are.”
“They’re east, next to the Atlantic Ocean.”
“Is that ocean close to the Mediterranean?”
Ian laughed, his eyes remaining on his phone as he typed something. But then he paused.
“You know, I think they’re connected. But it’s practically on the other side of the world.”
Ian looked at me.
“What does ‘yda’ mean?”
I pursed my lips.
“Have I never said that before? Huh. It means… ‘nice’? But not ‘friendly’ nice, just something that’s interesting. Or ‘oh, that’s nice’.”
“Could I say… vah yda?”
“You definitely could,” I said with a grin.
“There’s an ocean in the way to the other side of the world?” Juni asked, grabbing Ian’s hair to stay steady.
“Uh-huh,” Ian nodded, not seeming to notice. “Both east and west. There’s the Atlantic to the east, and the Pacific to the west.”
“Is Pacific by… what’s it called… Canifornia? That’s as west as you can go without a boat?”
“California,” Ian said, correcting Juni. “And yeah. Or a plane.”
“Oh. Eliza’s gone on a plane. Not me.” Juni said next. “Hmm. How does a big metal plane fly?”
“A big plane like that needs big jet engines to make it get off the ground,” Ian said.
“What’s a jet engine?” Juni asked.
“If it’s an engine that makes an airplane fly,” I said, crutching towards Ian’s bed. “Then I imagine it’s something gigantic and loud. Any chance you can help me up, Ian?”
“Uhh…” Ian dropped his phone and peered over at Juni. Before Juni could notice, Ian reached over and wrapped his hand around Juni’s middle, peeling him off and flipping him upside down.
“Ah!” Juni cried. “P-Put me down! Ow, rotis! Hurt!”
“Oh, sorry!” Ian replied, surprised at the Iatili’s negative reaction. He quickly placed the boy upon his back. I placed my crutches down on the floor just as Ian took me by my waist and hauled me up.
“Oof,” I grunted as he lifted me, fighting to breathe.
Juni struggled to his feet as I landed on mine.
“I’m sorry! Are you guys okay?”
“I’m fine, don’t worry. Do you have something I can write with? I’ll keep notes for you while you study.”
“Yeah,” Ian said, lifting himself from the bed.
I looked over at Juni; he seemed a bit rattled.
“Vah sulm, Juni?”
His eyes were wide.
Yes, just a little…
“Neh vah travo. Vah desni atai, vah dranir erdi.”
Juni looked upwards, his face painted in fear. I turned around, and Ian was looking down at us with hurt in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, kneeling down in front of us. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“You’re all right,” I said, no longer able to confidently stand on my legs. I sat down on the very edge. “I just told Juni that you’re learning how to help us. I’m comfortable enough when you hold me, but I don’t think Juni’s quite used to it. I think you surprised him.”
I turned to look at Juni. He nearly looked ready to flee.
“I didn’t hurt you bad, did I?” Ian asked with sorrow, lifting his hand palm-upwards and offering it to the Iatili boy. Juni took a step backwards as the curled fingers approached.
“It’s okay, Juni. Just tell Ian what you want.”
Juni’s mouth hung open for a moment.
“Please… please don’t do that again,” Juni whispered, resisting Ian’s outstretched hand. “Neh media lai vanir odane…”
Before Ian could ask, I translated: “Juni says he doesn’t like to be scared.”
“Oh. Me neither,” Ian said with a nod. “I’ll ask you from now on, I promise. I won’t do it again without permission.”
“Can you still be friends, Juni?”
Juni’s gaze went from me to Ian’s face and finally to the hand before him. Although no doubt still unnerved, he reached his own hand forwards and touched the tip of Ian’s forefinger. Ian held it with his thumb.
“Sia,” Juni said with only a bit of a pause. “Friends.”
As large as I could write, I kept detailed notes as Ian dug through information for the subject of his paper. I didn’t say so, but the kind of history he shared seemed very complex for a boy his age to write a report on. Of all the things I did not expect, however, was Juni: instead of remaining distant and withdrawn after his brief but harrowing experience, he actually turned back into his rather confident self. Keeping notes and watching Juni at the same time was difficult but rather entertaining, especially as I watched Juni walking to and fro. I wanted to shout at him to return and sit still as the Iatili boy came close to Ian’s legs. But I didn’t want to alert Ian.
Ian didn’t notice at all. He continued studying, and I struggled to listen.
The ivory legs occasionally bent and bobbed up and down, but Juni showed little hesitation. He finally stopped at the level of Ian’s socked feet. When it appeared that Ian would slow down and stop moving, Juni dared something I would never have: he gently touched the Iatvi’s heel with a finger. He actually did this several times.
Ian didn’t notice at all. He continued reading.
I had to stifle a laugh. I looked up at Ian, and, for a split second, the boy looked at me. I tried not to show any emotion other than studious. Ian returned to face his phone.
Juni then returned, playfully drifting his hand just a few inches away as if to steady himself against the human. When a few seconds passed and Juni finally returned to Ian’s shoulder, he performed something that would have been difficult for me to manage: he bent down to a crawl and wedged himself beneath Ian’s underarm, emerging beneath Ian’s chin. This the Iatvi boy did notice, and paused just long enough to acknowledge the strange Iatili with a nervous laugh before continuing to scroll through his studies. Juni, taking a seat within Ian’s arms with a huge grin on his face, looked at me. With one hand, he plugged his nose, and with the other, he pretended to wave the smelly air away.
I laughed. Too hard. Ian stopped reading and looked down at me.
“…what?” he asked. “Did I say something wrong?”
Juni’s face turned to horror.
“No, everything makes sense,” I replied. “Just, eh… slow down a little bit so I can get everything, okay?”
“Sure,” he said, and continued.
Juni wasn’t done. He crawled back under Ian’s underarm, and when he emerged, wore a very pained expression on his face. He stuck his tongue out; gross, and pretended to throw up.
I couldn’t hold it in. I made a sound that resembled someone sneezing.
Ian looked up, looked at me, and turned to look at Juni. Juni froze.
“What? What did I do?” Ian asked. He then frowned. “You’re making fun of me.”
“Not me,” I told him. “But I think Juni has something to tell you.”
The iatili’s eyes grew wide.
“Uh… No, no…” Juni whispered. “No I don’t.”
Ian’s gaze jumped from me to Juni to me again.
“Remember what I like to complain about, maitoka?” I asked.
Juni “sneezed” like I did.
“Maito… what does…?” Ian paused. He then angled his nose downwards. “…oh.”
“Ian vah maitoka, des aeria lai ilirka.”
“You think so?” I asked him. “English, please.”
“Um…” Juni said, with a sincere cough this time. “Ian is… smelly, but I like him.”
“Really?” Ian asked. He put his phone down. “I like you too. But I bet you smell worse than me because you’re a teenager.”
“Olem…!” Juni said, unable to resist smelling under his own arms. “A little. You have a… a bigger smell.”
I expected Ian to argue, but he pursed his lips.
“Well, don’t get so close, silly,” he laughed.
“When Charsi’s done, she’ll probably hang out with us for a while,” I told Ian. “How about you go take a shower and we’ll finish taking notes tonight.”
“How much do you have now?”
“Um… two pages. Front and back. Can you read my writing?”
Ian looked over them one after another, flipping them around.
“Yeah,” he said finally. “Yeah, these are awesome. You’re the best little teacher ever.”
“Best little note-taker, you mean,” When Ian nodded, I waved him on. “All right, maitoka, go wash up. Let’s make a good impression for Charsi.”
By the time Ian had finished bathing, Catherine returned and announced it was Juni’s turn for measuring. The exchange was done over the kitchen island; Juni’s excitement matched Charsi’s fear of the giant boy and the strange cripple before her. I hobbled over to her and reached for her hand; she took it.
“Val sulm, Charsi,” I said to her. “Ian vah sulmka, vah dani lai kal bodlir.”
It’s okay, Charsi. Ian is a good boy, he’s happy to see you.
Charsi regarded me for a moment before looking upwards. Upon Ian’s face was a soft smile. In the very least, his clean and damp-tossed hair and fresh clothes made him much more presentable to a little lady.
“You boys take care of our princess,” Catherine said, taking Juni in her arms.
“We will,” Ian and I said at the same time, tossing a glance at each other.
“Do you like cartoons, Charsi?” Catherine asked. “Ian has a television in his room.”
“They’re pretty funny,” I added, patting her hand. “But you probably know better than me anyway.”
Still looking at Ian, Charsi nodded.
Ian took Charsi in his hands first and carefully lowered her to the ground. He then took me with a little less finesse, but I was used to it by then; I grabbed my crutches that lay upon the ground and hopped towards the young girl. I noticed her frightful eyes were not up towards the pinnacle of Ian’s head, but at his bare toes not more than a few inches away.
“Come on, Charsi,” Ian said, leaning himself on his knees. “My room is this way.”
As he stepped towards the hallway with the thud of footsteps, Charsi retreated backwards towards me.
“Don’t worry, Charsi, Ian can be a little quick, but he’s very attentive. If he does something that makes you nervous, just let him know, okay?”
Charsi looked at me as if wanting protection, but my crutches impeded any. So I took the lead, and made sure she followed after.
Even worse than with Juni, Ian had no idea what to do with Charsi. When Ian turned on the television and set it to the proper channel, he nearly forgot to lift us up onto the chair in the middle of the bedroom. Then, after we were all set up and seated, he flopped down on his bed (making Charsi jump) and didn’t say more than a few words to us. It didn’t help that although Charsi looked backwards towards the Iatvi every few seconds, Ian engrossed himself on his silly phone and didn’t pay much attention.
We watched the television in silence for more than a few minutes, and even though I laughed at a few parts of the cartoon, Charsi remained stoic. She did not enjoy her surroundings at all. When an advertisement came on, I cleared my throat.
“Will you like your new clothes?” I asked her in Iatnasi. “Catherine does great work.”
“I’m excited,” she said in a decidedly less-than-excited tone. “Eliza tries to make me clothes, but they don’t fit well. It’s not comfortable.”
“I’ll bet it isn’t,” I said. “Though I’m sure Eliza does her best. She seems like a very special person to you.”
“I love her. If Eliza and Xande hadn’t taken care of me, I would have gotten very sick and the same thing that happened to my parents would have happened to me.”
I nodded and fell silent for just a moment.
“I’m sorry. My parents and my little brother and sister died from sickness too.”
“Do you miss them?” Charsi asked.
“Sometimes. But I found a new family, just like you did. Now all I need to do is…”
I looked at Charsi and nodded.
“You’ll love her when you meet her,” I said, the hope my dream gave me still brightening my thoughts. “She is so patient and kind, I don’t deserve someone like her.”
“But you’re patient and kind too, aren’t you?” Charsi folded her hands in her lap. “I wish you and Xande were friends. He’s kept Juni and I safe for a long time. I love him, too.”
I offered her a smile.
“It’s… complicated. But I wish we were. Aria and Xande could both live with us, and we could protect her the way Xande protects you.”
“And your baby.”
I nodded, looking at the television without watching it.
“I… I can’t believe I’ll be a father. My own father wasn’t the best example for me. Far from it. But it’s my job to make Aria and the baby safe and comfortable. And I can’t think of any better place to do that than here.”
“You’re not afraid of Iatvi?”
“I am. And I was, when Ian and his cousins saved me. I thought Ian would lock me in a backpack like Eliza did to Xande. But he took me to his dad instead. You’ll meet James, he’s a very talented doctor and very friendly. He made sure I survived and healed. I owe the Petersens my life.”
“Is that why you wear bandages?”
“I was floating down a river when I hit something very sharp. It sliced my throat and I couldn’t speak for a while.”
Charsi cringed, clutching her own neck.
“Ow…” she whispered. “That sounds like it hurt.”
“It did. It still does.”
“Iatvi scare me,” Charsi admitted. “Um…”
She turned her head to see if Ian was listening. He wasn’t. In fact, he had laid his head down and seemed to be falling asleep.
“Ian scares me.”
“But you’re not afraid of Eliza?”
“I used to be. For a long time.”
“It’s just like I told you,” I said. “All you have to do is tell Ian what you want. He’s a very good listener. He has a great responsibility on his shoulders, after all.”
Charsi tilted her head.
“It’s the same responsibility Eliza has. Not only does Ian have to learn how to treat us with respect, he has to keep us a secret from almost everyone he knows to keep us safe. Including a lot of his family. Sound familiar?”
Charsi remained quiet.
“It’s worse for Ian, though. He has no Iatvi friends to rely on. So if he were to hurt us or mistreat us, he thinks we would stop being his friend, and he would be completely alone.”
“But that’s sad,” Charsi said. “You wouldn’t stop being his friend, would you?”
“Nope. But it’s been difficult to convince him. He hurt me very badly the first week I was here, and he still has nightmares about it.”
Charsi parted the black hair from her eyes and thought.
“If he were Iatili, I would be friends with him.”
“What’s stopping you from being his friend now?”
Charsi looked back at Ian laying upon his bed.
“…he’s not Eliza.”
“But Catherine is like Eliza, right?”
“You sure it’s not because he’s a boy?”
Charsi looked up at me with a scowl.
“No! I’m not scared of boys!”
“Well, guess what?” I said, leaning backwards. “I think Ian is scared of you because you’re a girl.”
“What? But why?”
“You’ll learn this about boys real quick,” I said with a laugh. “They get spooked easy, especially by girls. You should have seen me around Aria when we were teenagers. She’d been my friend for years. But one day I didn’t see her as just a friend, I suddenly saw her as a girl. A very pretty girl, too. I started saying really stupid things around her, and she thought I’d gone crazy.”
Charsi’s eyes were wide.
“Ian didn’t say anything stupid.”
“That’s because he didn’t say anything at all,” I said. I pointed over at him. “Notice how he ignored us when the cartoon came on? It’s not because he doesn’t like you, it’s because he’s too nervous to speak to you.”
Charsi frowned again. She looked over her shoulder to look at Ian, then looked back down at her lap.
“But that’s strange. Why would an Iatvi be scared of me?”
“Let’s go find out.”
Charsi’s head spun at me in horror.
“What? No no… he’s… he’s sleeping, I don’t want to wake him.”
“Come on, Charsi,” I said, scooting myself towards the corner of the chair. I held out my hand to her. “I’ve woken Ian up many times, he’s never angry.”
Charsi didn’t speak, holding back.
“Ian wants to be your friend,” I said. “He just needs a little help. Come talk to him. And don’t be afraid, I’ll be with you the whole time.”
Charsi took one last look at the Iatvi boy behind her before reluctantly taking my hand.
I descended to the floor with much more success than a few months prior and discovered that much like her brother, Charsi was an excellent climber. I left my crutches on the floor and chose to limp to Ian’s bedside, taking hold of Charsi’s hand to ease her fears. When we climbed to the surface of his bed (Charsi after me), we both approached Ian; his face was turned towards the wall. Fortunately, his arm was hanging over the edge instead of guarding his head, so we had no obstruction before us. Charsi understandably stood at a distance while I approached the great hairy crown.
“Hey, sleepy,” I said, reaching my hand out into the tangled bundle of hair. Smooth and washed, I brushed it side-to-side to get the boy’s attention. “You awake?”
“Hello, kani?” I said. I knocked on Ian’s head, right where his hair parted. “Ian?”
I heard Charsi gasp, and I looked up to see Ian’s opposite hand itch the spot I’d hit. Then, the whole form of the Iatvi rose upwards on his elbows as the head turned towards Charsi and I. His exhausted expression suddenly turned into a gentle kind of fear as he recognized the two figures beneath him.
“O-Oh,” he stammered at once, holding himself up with one arm and rubbing an eye with his other. “I’m sorry, I… I didn’t mean to fall asleep…”
“Charsi and I just want to talk to you.”
Ian looked at the surface of the bed.
“Um, okay,” he whispered.
Scooting back so as not to push us off the bed, Ian sat with his back to the bedroom wall with his legs folded. He’d only been laying down for a few moments, but his hair was already disheveled on one side. And even though his posture appeared tired, his eyes and nerves were alert.
“Charsi,” I said, waving her to my side. I took her hand. “Tell Ian what you told me. If Ian were Iatili.”
Ian placed his hands in his lap as Charsi gathered her courage.
“I… I want to be friends,” she said quietly. “If you were Iatili… it would be easier.”
“Oh,” Ian said. “I guess… I’m… sorry I’m not.”
“Ian is Ian,” I told Charsi. “And you’re you. No use wishing to change that, huh? You don’t think you would get along?”
Charsi shrugged, still not looking upwards.
“I don’t like to be scared,” she said.
I looked up at Ian, and he acknowledged my expression; exactly what Juni had said.
“But I’m not scary. I promise I’m not.”
“I told her that you were scared of her too,” I said, much to his surprise.
“What? Why? What do you mean?”
“You’re not nervous around girls, are you?”
“Nerve…? Nuh-uh, I’m… I’m not.”
I grinned at him.
“I think you are.”
“But I’m not. I’m not… nervous around anyone. Not cute girls, not anybody.”
Charsi looked up at me, then up at Ian with a slight blush.
“You think I’m cute?”
Ian’s face drained of color and his eyes grew wide.
“I… I didn’t… I mean, that’s not what I meant, I just…”
Charsi looked pained.
“You don’t think so?”
Ian’s hands wrestled with each other in desperation as his eyes flew around the room.
“N-no, that’s… I mean, I mean yes, but I didn’t…” He looked directly at me and pouted. “This isn’t fair! What is this, ‘Make Fun of Me Day’?”
I laughed out loud, and Charsi even showed a small smile.
“You did that to yourself!”
“Vah sulm, Ian,” Charsi said with her delicate voice. “I… think you’re kinda cute, too.”
If there was any more confidence in Ian’s face, it vanished. Ian couldn’t even stammer. He simply looked at Charsi in true terror.
“Nice work, Charsi!” I said, lifting her hand in triumph. “See what I told you? You’re scarier than he is!”
For more than a moment, Charsi looked up at Ian with a delightful smile and Ian looked back at her, stunned.
“Well?” I said, stepping forward. Charsi followed me. “What do you think of him?”
“I don’t want you to be lonely, Ian,” Charsi said. “And I don’t either. I… I think I can be your friend. If you want.”
Ian sat there for a moment more. Then, he lowered both of his hands and placed them palms upwards before Charsi and I.
“Can I… hold you?” he asked sheepishly.
Charsi looked at me and held my hand tighter.
“He’ll be careful. Won’t he?”
Charsi relented, and I held her hand as she awkwardly stepped onto Ian’s fingers. Unable to keep proper footing, she lowered herself to her hands and knees. She shot one last unsure look at me as Ian raised her up into the air.
Charsi turned herself to sit cross-legged. They stared at each other.
“…your hands smell like soap,” Charsi said.
“Uh-huh. I keep them clean,” Ian said with a laugh. “Lenn told me to take a shower.”
“He listens to me sometimes,” I said up to her, and Ian grinned.
“Yeah, just sometimes.”
“But… if I’m going to be your friend, you’ll keep me safe?” Charsi asked. “Just like Eliza?”
“Of course,” Ian said. “Just like I do for Lenn. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
I couldn’t quite see from my perspective, but from Ian’s reaction, I could tell that Charsi was doing something, perhaps drawing her fingers along the creases of Ian’s hand. The boy laughed.
“Aww, that tickles!”
“Yep,” he said, gritting his teeth. “What if I tickled you back?”
“No, please don’t,” Charsi whispered. “Juni does, and I don’t like it.”
“Ian, be nice.”
“Ah!” Ian giggled, straining but unable to put Charsi down. His hands shook, but the now-comforted girl showed little fear. “Ah! Stop! Lenn, make Charsi stop! Tell her to be nice, not me!”
For the first time, I heard Charsi laugh. And I laughed along with her.
“Remember, she’s the princess,” I said. “That means she’s in charge, not me!”
Late evening came, a few hours after Eliza had departed. Sleep was the furthest thing from my mind, and I couldn’t simply remain in bed waiting for the next day to come. I’d felt this way too many times, my stomach tied in knots and so filled with anxiety that I thought I might die simply by dwelling on the future. To be perfectly honest, I preferred the threat of actual danger to the impending feeling of doom, if only for the fact that seen danger can be avoided. Unseen events cannot, and from the sound of things, Xande’s reaction to my presence away from you was not positive in any way.
I stepped into the kitchen, limping a little slower than normal. I had expended a lot of energy that day, and I didn’t imagine the next day would improve it. I stayed in the middle of the floor, noticing for the first time that I didn’t feel compelled to remain in the shadows of the expansive room.
Footsteps emerged from a room downstairs, and then marched upwards towards me. I paused, prepared to wave down the Iatvi if only to avoid being kicked or smashed. But as his head emerged from the stairs below, James spotted me immediately.
“Lenn,” he said with a grin. “Just the man I wanted to see.”
I expected James to continue his ascent and dwarf me, but instead he sat upon one of the steps further down, keeping his eye level at mine.
“Come on over,” he waved. He played with something in his hands, and as I drew close to the edge of the carpeted stairs, I recognized what they were immediately. “What do you think? Will these work for you?”
My eyes widened as he handed me a pair of expertly crafted crutches. They weren’t wood or twigs to which I was accustomed. In fact, they appeared to be made out of sleek metal tubes, shaped and bolted together wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. Wrapped straps of leather protected the tops for comfort, underneath which was added a cushioning of foam. A crossbar secured the middle of the crutches as a place to hold my hands, and upon the bottoms were rubber pegs to keep the metal from scratching the floors… as if I had ever had to worry about that before, right?
For longer than I should have, I simply held them in my hands. James had given me crutches designed to last for years, and they did exactly that.
“Well?” he asked with a half-grin. “Go ahead, check the height. I took Catherine’s measurements, but I had to guess a little. Crutches should fit below your armpit and let you bend your elbow.”
Gently standing on my weak leg, I took a crutch in each hand and placed them under my arms. Right away I noticed the problem; they were both a little high, and even attempting to rest my weight on my left side made my injury sting. James saw the expression on my face.
“Not quite right, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I answered.
“Once they’re lowered, they shouldn’t hurt. I’ll go ahead and fix them, they should be done by tonight before you go to bed.”
“Wait…” I replied. I had been too surprised to connect the dots. “You… made these?”
“Of course. I tried to find some Lenn-sized crutches at the pharmacy, but they were sold out.”
I smiled back.
“These are incredible,” I said, handing them back to James. “I can’t believe that you would do that for me. I was expecting wood poles and tape… Maybe sticks and string. I’ve built crutches with worse.”
“Nonsense, Lenn. You should know me better than that by now. It was a fun challenge. Do you know how hard it was to find screws and rubber pegs that small?”
“I can guess,” I replied with a nod.
“Let me get an accurate measurement really quick. Hold this next to your arm, would you?”
James gave me one crutch, and I held it to my side. From his shirt pocket James produced a thin-tipped pen, and made a black mark perhaps three of my fingers in width. He repeated this with the other crutch, and examined them both to make sure they were the same length.
“Perfect. I’ll fix these right away, and you’ll be all set.”
“James, I just… don’t know what to say. It’s been so hard for me to walk, and I’ve never had a set of crutches like this… Serditol. Thank you, really.”
“We all love having you here, Lenn. Ian’s really brightened up a lot since you arrived. He hasn’t made many friends, even in our church, and school has been particularly hard for him.”
“He’s said so,” I said. “He hasn’t told me specifics, but… I think other kids make fun of him for some reason.”
“Believe it or not, much of it is because of the church we go to. Many of those kids’ parents don’t believe what we believe, and they teach their kids that it’s okay to push Ian around for staying true to his beliefs.”
“What?” I frowned. “But why? Why do they care what Ian believes?”
“I don’t know,” James said. “Some people just feel the need to punish others for being different.”
I folded my arms.
“Hmm. I know something about that. I wish I could do something. If I were human, I’d teach those kids a thing or two.”
“I’m sure you would. I’m just glad you’re here to help Ian through the day.”
“Well, I owe it to him. I owe it to all of you.”
“Catherine told me about Eliza,” James said, shaking his head. “I can hardly believe it. She’s been hiding these kids for so long… I can’t wait to meet them. And I hear you’re going to teach them.”
I laughed, scratching my nose.
“I don’t know what Eliza expects of me. But it sounds like they may be outcasts like me. And I figure outcasts should stick together… if they’re not scared out of their minds from being in a new place surrounded by new people.”
“New human people, you mean.”
“Well, you let me know how it all goes tomorrow. I know I’d only add to the fear if I joined you, so I’ll hide in my office downstairs until everything calms down a bit. But before then, let me go fix your crutches. Are you headed to Ian’s room? You want me to put them anywhere, or bring them to you when they’re done?”
“Um…” I put my finger to my lips. “Maybe you can just leave them in the guest room. I figure I can walk around for one more day.”
“Sounds good, I’ll do that.”
“Thank you, James, thank you. I won’t stop saying it. I hope I can find a way to pay you back someday.”
“You already are, Lenn, don’t you worry.”
James disappeared back down the stairs, and I hobbled towards Ian’s door. Closing an ear with my finger as I passed the electronic bug repeller, I noticed the bedroom’s door was slightly ajar. I pushed it open, and it made no noise; squeezing through the gap, I found the room relatively dark with the sun mostly gone outside the window and the warm lamp lit on Ian’s bedside table.
I didn’t call out to him. He was lying on his bed upon his stomach, engrossed watching something on his phone (typical Ian) with a pair of wired ear-shaped somethings he called ‘headphones’ jammed in his ears. Apparently, they allowed Ian to listen to the sounds of his phone without bothering anyone else. Keeping to the shadows beneath his dresser and television, I carefully climbed the sheets at the end of his bed until I stood about a foot away from his bobbing feet.
I had plenty of room on the side of the bed to avoid them, but his legs still made me a bit nervous. I walked past them quickly and approached his side above his hips.
His attention remained on his phone. When Ian focused, it was very difficult to unfocus him. But this certainly did: I grabbed hold of his t-shirt around his middle and hauled myself up onto the small of his back. Ian’s hand immediately swatted at me as if some small bug jumped onto him, and he shook side-to-side to buck me off. I held onto him firmly, though, and pushed his hand as it bounced off of my arm.
“Huh?” Ian asked, pulling out one of his headphones.
“Hey,” I announced. “Quit moving.”
He did so, but not without letting out a guttural laugh that rumbled through my good knee.
“…what are you doing?”
“Taking a seat.”
“On my back?”
On all fours (or three-and-a-halfs, since my bum leg just dragged behind me), I crawled upwards. I could feel his muscles flexing beneath my hands.
“Ah!” he said, his head pulling backwards. “That itches.”
“I hope so,” I said, finally stopping at the gap between his shoulder blades. Sharply prominent through his shirt, I could practically use them as handholds to keep myself situated upon my new sitting place. When I rested myself (sitting beside the discomfort from his spine beneath me), I dug my fingers into the fabric of his shirt, scratching him. “What are you watching?”
“I’m listening to music,” he said. “Want to hear?”
He offered me the headphone he’d just removed, and I took the head-sized plastic frame. For being such a large speaker, I had a hard time hearing any sounds emerging from it without bringing it very close to my own ear.
From within the speaker, I heard the rhythms of electronic music, of pianos and guitars, of lyrics I had a difficult time understanding, and beats to which Ian gently swayed. For three or four songs, we didn’t say a word to each other. Instead, we just lost ourselves in the music. The songs weren’t intense or gentle; they were simple enough to relax and complex enough to distract. I felt infinitely comforted to have anything floating through my mind beyond my own thoughts, and I’m sure it was similar for Ian. I wasn’t sure the tunes were familiar to the funny ka, as the notes he hummed didn’t exactly follow the tones. But I found myself doing the very same thing, entranced by the sounds.
In the middle of the next song, Ian piped up.
I put the headphone down in my lap.
“Can you tell me now?”
“Tell you what?”
“Why you’re afraid of Xande,” he said. “I don’t want him to hurt you.”
I sighed, continuing to scratch the boy’s back.
“I can’t,” I said. “It’s… not for a boy your age.”
Ian was silent for a moment.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s like that.”
I tilted my head.
“That’s the same thing Mom and Dad say about my adoption. Or when they talk about my birth mom. They always say they’ll tell me when I’m older.”
“It’s okay if you don’t trust me,” he continued. “I won’t ask anymore.”
“Ian, don’t say that. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s… it’s that I don’t trust myself to say it out loud. That it will become too painful if I tell someone.”
Ian remained quiet, and the music continued without me for a few moments.
“Hah. It won’t matter by tomorrow, though. You’ll know by then anyway.”
I sighed and rested my arms on my curled knee.
“…do you promise to keep it a secret until I talk about it?”
I turned my head as well as I could, and I saw Ian’s head nodding up and down.
“Okay… So, I… I wasn’t quite telling the truth when I said that Aria and I were just… friends…”
The morning came in an instant. The moment the front door shut, I stood to my feet as if ready for combat. My heart beat a million miles per minute, and Ian could sense my apprehension. He stood up and opened the door, taking a peek into the kitchen.
“Hi Ian,” Eliza said. “Keep your voice down, yeah?”
“Is that them?” asked Catherine from somewhere outside the room.
“Yes, come on in.”
Eliza entered first, stepping around Ian to kneel at the end of the bed. In both hands she held a large green backpack that she guarded close to herself as if her life depended on it. Or, several lives, to be specific. Catherine stepped in behind her with a kitchen chair, placing it against the wall and taking a seat. Ian knelt back down beside me.
“You guys ready?” Eliza asked. She wasn’t talking to us. From inside the backpack I heard a voice give a quiet confirmation, and with that, Eliza set the bag down on the surface of the bed and unzipped the main compartment. After a short moment of sure hesitation, two figures emerged from the darkness within, dressed in a collection of rough black-and-blue clothing that didn’t seem to fit them properly: a blonde-haired and pale young teenage boy, and a raven-haired almond-eyed girl that clung to his side. They covered their eyes from the bright window light, and the moment they saw the enraptured audience before them, they stopped.
“It’s okay, guys,” Eliza said, looking upon them. “This is my family. Don’t be afraid, you’re safe here.”
“Hello, little ones,” Catherine said cheerfully. Ian gave a small wave and a friendly smile.
I did not. Because my gaze was firmly attached to the figure that next emerged from the dark. He showed no fear behind his long jet-black hair, and the leathers he wore might well have been standard-issue for all gatherers I’d ever known. His face bore the familiar scars that I knew by heart, as well as the nasty glare he always reserved for me. The only part of him that appeared out of place was literally out of place: his left arm. All that remained was part of his shoulder; his sleeve clung to his belt like an empty banner.
He advanced on me. I walked towards him. I’m certain Eliza had scolding words prepared, but Xande spoke first.
“Why are you here, Lenn?”
He always said my name with a surprising amount of contempt. This time was no different.
“I might ask you the same thing,” I replied.
“No, not this time. You don’t get to argue with me. Tell me why you’re here.”
The sharpness of his Iatnasi hadn’t changed. I always thought his accent stronger than mine, but hearing it out loud from him then, I began to doubt. Maybe it was from his time away.
My eyes narrowed.
“Ask Elder Ordi. Ask the gatherers.”
Xande pressed his face towards me.
“Well, they’re not here, are they? You didn’t just leave. There’s only one reason Ordi would have you exiled. Aria couldn’t protect you this time, and I want to know why.”
“As if they needed a reason.”
Xande shoved me backwards with his hand.
“Xande, cut it out!”
“Not now, Eliza!” Xande barked in English.
“You’ve always been like this. Pushing me around is your only answer.”
“And whining is yours. You can’t blame your broken leg for everything shitty that happens to you. Maybe if you tried to actually do something useful, everyone wouldn’t hate you so much.”
“If you didn’t have a teacher, you wouldn’t even be able to spell your name. You wouldn’t know rat poison from sugar by the label without Aria. Without me.”
Xande’s eyes rolled so hard, I thought he might lose them.
“Again, and again, and again. Your argument never changes. I can spell my name just fine without you. You’ve always thought yourself so important, sitting in your dirty ‘school’ wasting everyone’s time while we fought for everything you ate. No one needed you. No one needs you.”
Xande came within a hand’s width away from my face.
“I won’t ask again. Why are you here? Why couldn’t Aria protect your sorry ass?”
I attempted to remain resolute in the face of this pretentious Iatili, but… he deserved to know, no matter what I thought of him. I couldn’t help but withdraw and break away from eye contact.
“You know why.”
Xande shoved me again, nearly making me trip backwards.
“Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. Why don’t you tell it to my face?”
“Xande, you’re scaring the-”
“Shut up!” Xande shouted. “Tell me, Lenn. What did you do to her?”
I wasn’t going to feel shame for this. You wouldn’t want me to. I stared back at him, shoving my face into his.
“Ke hountia Aria.”
I’m not quite certain what I sensed first, the crushing weight of Xande’s fist connecting with my nose, the drain of blood bursting forth from my nostrils, or hearing the thumping sound of his knuckles as I reeled backwards and collapsed. The world spun and I saw nothing but stars; I heard, however, a collection of frightened gasps and Eliza’s voice emerging loud and clear.
“Xande, what the hell?!”
“Get off of me! Put me down, woman, I’m going to tear him apart!”
“You’re not touching him again, you hear me!”
“Xande! Why did you do that?!”
“Lenn, are you okay?! Come on, get up!”
Ian’s hands gathered me about my waist and lifted me to my feet. Unprepared, I wobbled back and forth and waited a moment to balance with his support. Blood oozed down my shirt and no doubt onto the fabric floor, even on Ian’s hand. I felt the hard cartilage; it didn’t feel broken, exactly. Perhaps Xande didn’t have the momentum buildup from his missing arm, but it didn’t make the strike any less painful.
I could hear Xande roaring to attack me again, but he was nowhere to be seen. Eliza must have removed him from the bed.
“No, Xande! Cool off, or I’m locking you in the backpack!”
“Let me up there, you bitch! I’ll kill him!”
Eliza’s head tilted in amazement.
“Oh, I’m the one acting like a bitch? Fine, you want to play it like that?”
“Don’t touch me, Eliza! This is between me and him!”
Eliza removed the backpack from the surface of the bed. I still couldn’t quite see past the pain, but in that instant, I heard everyone in the room gasp.
“Oh,” Eliza said with a laugh. “The big man’s got his knife, huh! Taking the high road, aren’t you!?”
From my perspective, it appeared that Eliza began wrestling and swiping at a Iatili on the floor.
“Xande, stop!” yelled the teenage boy.
“Xande, don’t hurt Eliza!” shouted the girl.
Three seconds of grunting and angry roars, and the scuffle came to a head: Eliza withdrew her hand like a bolt of lightning, sucking on her ring finger.
“Ouch! Damn it, Xande! Fine!”
Eliza’s hand shoved the ex-gatherer hard enough to make him collide into the far wall. The thump made everyone in the room wince, especially the two kids; they clung to each other all the tighter.
“There,” Eliza said, placing a piece of reflective sharpened metal next to the teenage boy on the bed. “Don’t let him have that, Jun.”
“Eliza! Let me go! We’re not done!!”
“Yeah, we’re not done,” she said, with surprising calm. “But you are.”
A Iatili was thrown into a backpack with force enough to sound like a book dropping to the floor. And then, ziiiiiip.
“Let me out! Now! He doesn’t deserve her! I’ll kill him for this, you hear me?!”
“You’re insane,” Eliza said, removing something from the backpack. Did she anticipate this? She must have, as she removed a thin plastic strip from a bag in the front pocket. Looping it through holes in the zipper handles, the plastic strip made clicking noises and secured the zippers together. Without his knife, he wasn’t getting out. “Little loser. Excuse me, I’m going to lock him in my car. I’ll be just a second.”
“Do you need a bandaid, Eliza?” asked Catherine, standing.
“No, I’m fine…”
Ignoring the mad screaming of the Iatili within, Eliza took the backpack and exited the room. I heard the front door close before I attempted to speak.
“I’m… sorry for the blood everywhere.”
Catherine and Ian whined.
“Lenn, don’t worry about it…”
“What did you tell him?”
I looked at the kids at the end of the bed that now appeared horrified, and I leaned against Ian’s warm hand.
“I… I said… I offered myself to Aria.”
“What does that mean?”
My face turned a slight red color, which may have increased the flow of blood from my nose.
“I can’t…” I gurgled.
I looked at Catherine, and for a split second, saw confusion on her face. But then realization dawned on her.
I patted Ian’s hand. I then looked to the Iatili distant from me.
“I’m sorry that was the first thing you had to see here,” I said to the two kids quickly, pinching my nose. “Are you two okay?”
Neither of them answered right away. To my surprise, however, the boy stepped towards me with his sister in tow at his side.
“It’s okay,” I said, raising a hand. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
“We’re not afraid,” said the boy in a very pronounced accent. It sounded different than mine. “What about you?”
I wiped my nose with my sleeve, and saw a thick smear of red. I couldn’t help a small laugh.
“I deserved it,” I said quietly. “I knew he would react that way.”
“You did not deserve it!” Catherine exclaimed.
“Yeah!” agreed Ian. “That wasn’t cool at all!”
I cast a glance at the Iatvi, then back to the Iatili kids. The boy’s expression was solid, but the young girl reserved her judgement, clinging to the teenager and hiding her face in her long hair. Now standing a few inches away from Ian’s hand, they looked up at him, then back at me.
“You married… Xande’s sister?” the girl whispered. Her voice was crystal, delicate and pure like the color of her dark-brown eyes.
My eyebrows raised. The boy looked down at the girl, and I gave her a small smile.
“Yes,” I said out loud to her. Out loud for the first time. Of course, just like the translation of the word ‘offered’, it wasn’t quite marriage, but… close enough for a ten year old. “I love her. And I miss her.”
The girl nodded. Then, to my surprise, the boy raised his hand to me.
“I’m Juni. This is Charsi.”
“Oh,” I said, noticing my correct hand covered in blood. Ian lowered his stained hand a bit, and I offered Juni my opposite. “Sorry, it’s good to meet you. I hope Xande hasn’t made me sound pathetic. At least I can take a punch.”
Charsi lifted her hand as well, and she delicately shook mine.
Juni gave a small smile.
“He tried. But…” he said. “I don’t believe much of what Xande says.”
“I’m grateful for that.” I motioned towards Catherine and Ian. I then spoke Iatnasi just to see their reactions. “This is Ian. And his mother Catherine. He’s Eliza’s cousin, and she’s Eliza’s aunt.”
“Hello,” he said. “Eeen. And Cah-ter-een.”
I smiled; though a bit different than mine, his pronunciation sounded just like that when you taught me English.
Eliza returned a few moments later with a frown on her face. Ian returned as well with a damp washcloth for me, his hands now clean.
“He is not a happy camper,” she said, kneeling back down before the side of the bed. “Swearing at me the whole time, in Iatnasi and English. He’s definitely not coming back here until he learns to relax.” She looked at me and held out her hand. “I’m sorry, Lenn. I had no idea he’d hit you like that.”
“I did,” wiping my upper lip and testing my nose again. Sore, but nothing more. “He hasn’t changed.”
“He’s going to be okay out there, right?” Catherine asked. “In your car? It’s going to get pretty hot.”
“As much as I’d like to make him sweat a bit, you’re right,” Eliza said. “I’ll probably have to go real soon.”
“But… our stuff is in the backpack,” Juni said, pointing to the door.
Eliza’s eyes widened as her lips pursed sideways.
“Shoot. You’re right.”
“The front pocket,” Charsi added.
“Val sia?” Juni asked.
Charsi nodded harder.
“Bodlis Eliza lai vamir lia ardi.”
“Oh. Sulm. I don’t have to cut him out of there until I get home.” Eliza turned to me. “Seriously, though, you’re okay? Your nose isn’t broken?”
“No, it just hurts, that’s all. I’m glad he didn’t use his knife, but I’m more grateful it wasn’t Elder Ordi standing over me. When he found out… he really did try to kill me.”
“Are you serious?” Eliza asked. “When was this?”
“A week before Ian and the boys found me. Aria tried to keep everything a secret, but there was only so much she could do to hide it. Eventually, everyone could, well… see what had happened.”
“Aria is pregnant, then?” Catherine asked.
I looked up at her, then back down at the bed. I nodded.
“That’s a good thing, though, yeah?” Ian asked, patting my back.
I nodded again.
“Xande had this figured out,” Eliza said.
“Yeah. All he needed was confirmation.”
“But Xande told us he has been gone from your village for a long time,” Eliza said quietly. “If he didn’t want this to happen, why did he leave? Why did he come to protect the kids?”
“He’s just like the other gatherers,” I said with bitterness. “When he lost his arm, I don’t think he could bring himself to come back.”
“Why?” Ian asked.
“Ha, look at me. I can hardly move with this leg of mine, and he’d taunted me for years. If he came back without an entire arm, he’d be unable to keep up with the others. He’d be exactly like me. I could call him a… oh, what’s the word… nissahnk. Hip. Hipo. Hipo-something.”
“Hypocrite?” Eliza suggested.
“Sia, a hypocrite.”
“That sounds like Xande. Asking him about his arm has always been a touchy subject.”
“But he’s never home,” Juni said. “He’s always climbing, running, jumping…”
“Like he’s compensating for something.”
“I’m not sure I know what that means,” I said.
Catherine gave Eliza a look. Eliza smiled.
“Not like that. Although I wouldn’t be surprised.” Her explanation went over my head. “He doesn’t let himself fail. He’s never felt sorry for himself, at least not in front of other people. Not that I’ve seen, anyway. Has he ever talked to you guys about his arm, or Lenn?”
Juni shook his head.
“Not me. I asked once. He got angry.”
Charsi looked a little sheepish.
“Xande talked to me about losing his arm. That he hated the pain in his shoulder, and how he had to use his teeth to tie knots. He talked about Aria, too. He said she was beautiful and kind. One time, he said-”
She paused. Eliza lowered her eyes towards her.
“Did he say something about Lenn?”
“I think so. That a boy always took his sister away. Um… ‘kalyti’.”
“What does that mean, Sisi?”
I chuckled, folding my arms.
“He called me that a lot,” I said. Turning to answer the blank stares, I continued: “It means ‘idiot boy’.”
Eliza frowned at me.
“Well, maybe not ‘idiot’, exactly. Dumb. And smart. Stupid, but not stupid. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“Someone smart but acts dumb?” Eliza said with a smile. “Makes me think of you, Ian. You’re a total nerd.”
“A nerd? I am not,” He paused, lifting his nose in the air. “I’m… refined.”
Holding back a grin, I tilted my head.
“I’m not… familiar with that word. Nerd?”
“Ha,” Ian said, nudging my shoulder with the back of his hand. “You’re an English nerd. It means you’re weird. Smart with words but goofy.”
I shrugged, looking up at him.
“I’ll accept that.”
“But Lenn,” Ian continued. “You’ve gotta find Aria. If she’s gonna have a baby soon, you want her to be safe, don’t you? What if she gets sick? Or your baby gets sick? With polio… or something really bad?”
“Ian…” Catherine said, lightly scolding him.
“That’s why I panicked when you told me about polio in the first place, Ian. I wanted the vaccine for her, but I wanted the vaccine for my child, too. I don’t want them to be crippled like me. I just don’t know how to help them. The village could have gone in any direction, and to be honest, I’m not sure I could point out where the old village was in the first place.”
Everyone appeared somber.
“It’s not like we can call a search party, can we?” Eliza asked.
I shook my head.
“I think we are the search party.”
“What if we bought a pair of really fancy night vision goggles?” Ian asked. “One of those with heat vision? Er, that can see heat, I mean. Then we could see Iatili easy.”
My eyes widened a bit.
“…if that’s real, that sounds horrifying.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s beyond my budget,” Eliza laughed.
“Ours, too,” Catherine agreed.
I folded my arms and bobbed my feet up and down.
“I know I just got punched in the face…” I growled. “But that vysht…”
I looked at Juni and Charsi.
“Uh, I mean… sorry for my language…”
“It’s okay,” Juni said with a shrug.
“I think that idiot in the backpack might be the only one that could track them. Considering he wants to murder me, though, I don’t think he’ll help me. Elder Ordi wants me dead, anyway.”
I closed my eyes.
“And Aria might not want to come back with me at all.”
“Why?” Ian asked.
“But you love each other,” Catherine said. “You don’t think she would?”
I shrugged. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the memory that floated through my mind.
“I… I said some very terrible things to her… to make her stay in the village. I couldn’t let her leave with me. I couldn’t let her throw her life away.”
I expected someone to argue with me, but they didn’t.
“I have no experience gathering. Neither does she. Even if we both left together, our best efforts couldn’t possibly have been good enough. We would both die. We would all die. And… I couldn’t let my choices do that to her. I couldn’t do it to her or to our child.”
“But you didn’t die,” Ian said. “We would have saved you.”
“If we knew back then, maybe,” Catherine said, resting her hand on Ian’s shoulder. “But if they had been together, things might have gone very differently. If you hadn’t found Lenn like you did, he wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
“Lenn,” Juni said. I looked at the boy, and he took a pause. “Xande won’t help. But I want to help. I want to help you.”
“I do too,” Charsi said, sounding equally as confident.
“Me too!” Ian said quickly.
I smiled at them, and Eliza spoke up first.
“You three are the best,” Eliza said proudly. “I think we’re kind of stuck, though. Until we come up with a plan, or Xande pulls his head out of his butt, there’s not a whole lot we can do.”
“We’ll think of something,” Ian said. “Right, Mom?”
“Yes, absolutely. I’ll go ask your father, I wonder if he might have any ideas.”
“Maybe Ian and I can go hiking, see if we can find anything. There’s got to be some trace of them out there,” Eliza said.
“I’ll come with you,” I said. “It’s as good a place to start as any.”
“And you two can start working on Xande when you come home,” Eliza replied to the two young Iatili. “There’s bad blood between him and Lenn, but Xande’s gotta recognize that this happened, and there’s nothing he can do but work with Lenn to help Aria.”
“I made all this happen… Without me, Aria would have found someone stronger, someone who could take care of her. Someone her family didn’t despise. It doesn’t matter, though… She means everything to me. I want to take her away from our terrible lives. I want to keep her safe, make her comfortable and carefree.”
I looked up at Catherine.
“I wouldn’t have known anything different if I hadn’t found refuge here. But I can’t take advantage of your family, Catherine. I’ve taken up so much of your attention by myself, what would my new family take from you? I can’t ask you to care for me, Aria, and our baby forever…”
“Why not? You’re my brother.” Ian asked. “Mom, why not? I want to help Lenn and Aria.”
Catherine reached for me and took my hand.
“Lenn, what do you really want?” she asked me.
I looked away.
“I… I don’t know… “
“Yes, you do,” she said with a soft smile.
“I can’t even begin to repay you for saving me, for feeding me, for caring for me. What could Aria and I possibly do to earn our right to stay here?”
“James and I have been talking about this, Lenn. You’re free to leave at any time… once you’re strong enough, of course. We would never keep you here against your will. At the same time, though, we couldn’t bring ourselves to force you away to fend for yourself out there. You’ve come to mean a lot to us, Lenn. And now that I know you have a family to protect, there’s no way I could leave Aria and your child out in the cold. I just couldn’t do it.”
“It’s the same reason I keep these two around,” Eliza said, patting Juni’s back. “Three, counting that blockhead Xande. I’m not putting them in chains, but I would never forgive myself if they got themselves hurt or killed if I gave up on them. No matter how hard things get, they’re part of my life now.”
“Yes, exactly. You’re part of our lives, Lenn,” Catherine agreed. “You earn your keep by being part of it.”
“We’re brothers,” Ian said, ruffling my hair. “And I won’t let my big brother get hurt. And if you’re my brother, then Aria is my sister.” When I laughed, he scratched his cheek. “Um, sort of. You know what I mean.”
I shook my head in amazement and said nothing for a moment.
“Viamen indiata rundi,” Juni said, catching my attention. “Sisi ys ke. Huh Eliza?”
“Wha’d he say?” Ian asked.
“That they’re part of your family, too.”
“Yeah, definitely,” Ian said with a grin.
“I’d love to hold a baby,” Charsi said, making a cradle of her arms. “Maybe a baby girl?”
“No way, ataikani!” Juni said with a laugh. “Then I can teach him kickball.”
“Yeah, a boy! For video games!” Ian said.
“I… I haven’t really thought about that. But… I can’t bring myself to even start until I see Aria again. If I find her, then we can think of better things.”
“When,” Catherine said, leaning forward. “When you find her.”