I Am Lenn – Chapter Four

Returned to my bedding and filled to the brim with the most wonderful meal I’d ever had, I allowed myself to close my eyes and empty my thoughts. I partially succeeded, laying my head back and letting my arms stretch naturally beside me. Upon seeing me in my relaxed state, I felt a large something shove my hair about and scratch the top of my head. I don’t think Ian saw the cheerful expression on my face in the shadow, and when I pushed his finger away, I saw a small frown form on his face.

“Sorry,” he replied. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

He then saw my grin, and laughed when I flopped my hand about.

The night was young when Ian moved my chair to the side, sat himself down on the floor, and turned his television on again. Instead of a movie this time, however, I watched the other activity the Iatvi enjoyed on their enormous electronic screens. Ian called them ‘video games’. ‘Video’ was a foreign word, but the ‘game’ he played hardly matched any form of game I had ever seen. We used to play games as children, like hiding or playing with sticks.

But Ian, taking a curious device into both of his hands that fit them perfectly, proceeded to move a strangely cartoonish character inside the television as fluidly as if he were the character himself. He showed me the device in his hand, called it a ‘controller’, and let me watch what was happening with his hands. His thumbs controlled rubber pads that rotated like wheels. When they didn’t do that, they pressed a myriad of different buttons with different shapes and colors on them.

The flashing lights and furious action that appeared on the screen was mesmerizing and almost a bit frightening; Ian’s ‘character’ would move so quickly, I could hardly keep up with it, even when Ian pointed it out over and over. He attempted to take me through the basics of the game, showing me which buttons did what action, and what each of the actions the characters were taking on screen meant, but even when Ian took it “slow”, it still didn’t mean much to my addled brain. Maybe it was all the food I just ate that made me sluggish that night, I’m not sure. But Ian seemed so excited to share his game with me that I just nodded and watched with a smile.

Ian was an only child. You may have guessed that from my description of his family. Even though I was twice his age, he treated me as a younger brother, showing me things in his room and describing everything, especially when I wrote him questions. Sleeping with him in the room that night was nerve wracking, as I could hear him snoring like a growling dog every few seconds. But he was faced away from me in his bed, and his breathing remained behind me, so I felt little threat from him. I soon fell asleep, and deeply as well.

When I awoke in the morning to see him dressed in slick dress pants and a button-down white shirt and red tie, I wondered what was going on. The day before he’d worn jeans and a grey tank top. I awoke to see that even his messy hair had been styled and combed.

What made this day different? Was it a Iatvi holiday? Sometime in March, I didn’t know the day. Wouldn’t a tie wrapped around his neck be terrible for a sunny morning?

As I lay there musing, Ian re-entered his room, and the first thing he did was look in my direction. He waved at me.

“Hi Lenn.”

I looked over at him, waved at him, and looked around me; my pad of paper and graphite was somewhere. As I scrambled, he recognized what I was doing, and helped me find the sliver of graphite above my head. I gave him a quick thumbs up and wrote a response.

“You look fancy.”

“I do?” Ian asked with a laugh. “Thanks.”

When he didn’t expound further, I wrote another message.

“Where are you going?”

“To church,” he said. “It’s only for a couple of hours. And then I’ll be back and we can eat something.”

‘Church’? I’d read the word in obituaries and occasionally in magazines. But I didn’t know what it meant.

“What’s church?” I wrote.

“Oh. It’s a place we go to, um, pray to God, take the sacrament, and go to classes to learn about the Gospel.”

I blinked dumbly; I didn’t recognize any of the terms he used. ‘God’? ‘Sacrament’? ‘Gospel’?

I made a connection, and I’m glad Ian waited patiently.

“Is Heavenly Father in church?” I wrote.

“Yeah,” Ian said, kneeling down before me. “Do you believe in God?”

I frowned.

“I don’t know what that means,” I wrote.

“Oh,” he said, sitting on the ground. “You know about Heavenly Father, though?”

“You said those words yesterday,” I wrote.

“I did?” Ian asked. “Oh, during my prayer, huh?”

I nodded.

Ian pursed his lips sideways and appeared to be contemplating on how to explain something that, admittedly, was fairly complicated for someone who had never heard of any of this before. Looking back, I applaud him for his effort in those short minutes.

“So…” he said. “Heavenly Father, or God, is our Father. Of our spirits, I mean. Do you know what your spirit is?”

I shook my head.

“If you didn’t have a body,” Ian said. “Then you’d be a spirit. Kind of like a ghost, but not really. Before you or I were born, we lived with God together, and…”

He paused as my confused frown increased.

“Um… “ he said with a laugh. “Wait… That’s not… Uh, it’s kinda hard to explain, and I don’t know where to start.”

I nodded, itching the bandage near my throat. He pointed at me.

“You and I are brothers,” he said. “Because we have the same Father.”

My neck popped backwards in confusion.

“James isn’t my dad,” I wrote.

“No, no,” Ian said. “Because of Heavenly Father. He’s my Father, and He’s yours. We’re brothers because we’re part of the same family in heaven.”

The idea intrigued me, if only because of my personal opinion of my ‘previous’ family. The idea that Ian and I were brothers seemed a little strange, having known each other for only two days.

I wrote: “What is heaven?”

“It’s a place you go after you die. It’s a really happy place where every good person gets to live with their families and Heavenly Father.”

I wrote.

“So if Heavenly Father is everyone’s father, is James my brother too?”

Ian studied the note for a moment. Then he smiled.

“Yup!”

Another idea struck me, one I thought too strange to be true.

“My friend Aria is my sister?”

Ian laughed.

“Yeah, kind of. She’s your friend here in life, but she’s part of Heavenly Father’s family too.”

Then another idea struck me that filled me with bitterness.

“So my family is part of Heavenly Father’s family too?”

“Yeah, you got it!”

When I made a nasty face and looked away, Ian spoke up.

“Why, what’s wrong?”

I wrote.

“My family doesn’t deserve to go to heaven.”

“Oh.” He scratched his nose. “Um… I don’t know. Maybe Dad can tell you more about that.”

I shrugged. The idea of processing that idea made me very tired.

“Oh yeah,” Ian said, perking up. “Someone else you should know about. Do you know who Jesus is?”

I shook my head.

“He’s God’s Son he sent to Earth two-thousand and nineteen years ago. Did you know His birth is how we measure years?”

I had no idea. I thought the number was completely arbitrary.

I wrote.

“Doesn’t Heavenly Father have lots of sons?”

“He does,” Ian said. “But Jesus was special. He was perfect, and He came to die to take away our sins.”

“What is ‘sins’?” I wrote.

“What are sins,” Ian corrected me. “They’re all the bad decisions and mistakes we make. When we don’t obey Heavenly Father’s commandments, that’s a sin.”

“What are ‘commandments’?”

“Um… it’s His rules for living right.”

I pursed my lips.

“Do I have sins if I don’t know Heavenly Father’s rules?”

Ian looked up at the ceiling.

“That’s a good question. I don’t know. I’d have to ask Dad.”

“Sins are bad?” I wrote.

“Uh-huh,” Ian said with a nod. “If you have sins, you can’t go to heaven and live with Heavenly Father again.”

I frowned. That didn’t make sense.

“So I can’t go to heaven?” I wrote.

“You can,” Ian said. “That’s because of Jesus. He suffered to take away our sins so we could go to heaven.”

“Suffered?”

“Jesus bled from every pore in His body for us, and then bad men nailed him to a wooden cross by his feet and his hands, and then He died for us. He died for you too, to take your sins away.”

“He didn’t know me.”

“Yes, he did,” Ian said. “Jesus knows everybody, just like Heavenly Father. He’s our Brother like I’m your brother. He felt everything you feel so He can help us during bad times.”

“How? He died a long time ago, didn’t he?”

“He did. But He’s still alive because He was resurrected.”

“What does that mean?”

“He came back to life after dying.”

I shook my head.

“Nobody can do that.”

“He did,” Ian said with a grin. “He even brought people back to life.”

I was a few pages from running out of paper.

“So he came to die just to come back to life again?”

“Yup. So we can be resurrected too.”

I frowned.

“I don’t know if I want that.”

“Why not? You don’t want to go to heaven without a body?”

That didn’t make sense either.

“But don’t you have to be dead?” I wrote.

“It’s kinda complicated,” Ian said. “If you want, I can come back and talk to you about it some more. Maybe Dad can help, too.”

I nodded, if only for the fact that it seemed very complex.

“Oh!”

Ian rose to his feet and stepped out of my view. He opened a shelf, closed it, and bent down beside the chair.

“Here,” he said. “If you want, you can read this. It’s called the Book of Mormon. It’s about people that lived hundreds of years ago and what they taught about Heavenly Father and Jesus.”

To my surprise, the book was thick, but not terribly wide or tall. In fact, I was fairly certain I could lean it in my lap with my blanket under it and keep my legs comfortable.

Ian placed the book beside me as I wrote another note.

“What’s Mormon?”

“Who. He was a prophet who put the book together a long time ago.”

“What’s a prophet?” I wrote.

“A prophet is someone God calls to teach people about Him.” Ian sighed. “ I didn’t think there was so much stuff to explain.”

“Sorry I don’t know anything.” I wrote, using the last green paper.

“It’s okay, don’t worry!” Ian said. “I’m not good at explaining it yet. I’ve got a lot more to learn, too.”

“Thanks for answering my questions.” I wrote on the brown page at the end of the stack.

“No problem! Before we go, do you want something to eat or drink?”

I carefully lifted my arm and scratched my head. I had one last question and I couldn’t ask it. I pointed at the stack of papers in Ian’s fingers.

“Oh, you’re out of paper, huh? I’ll get more for you when I get back. Here.”

He gave me a used sheet, and I wrote on the back. He took and read it.

“Oh, bathroom again. Like last time?”

I shook my head. How to mimic the action without being crude…

“Just pee?” Ian asked.

That made me grin. Pretty straightforward. I nodded.

“Okay,” Ian said, offering his hands to me.

Quickly, I held up my own, making him pause.

“What’s wrong?”

Less immediate, yes, but I still smelled like canal even two days later. To be honest, it was making me nauseous. I made the motions of using water beneath my underarms and down my stomach.

“Oh, you need a bath. Gotcha. I didn’t wanna say anything, but you do kinda smell funny.”

He grinned, so I wasn’t sure if his statement was true or not. I flopped a hand at him and he laughed.

“Can we do that after I get back?”

I nodded. No rush.

With a bit of pain, I used an arm to peel myself out of my bedding as the hands took hold of me. Instead of cradling me this time, he hauled me against his chest and his shoulder, giving me a frightening view of life as an Iatvi. I didn’t think I’d ever get used to being carried like a newborn by a ten-year old. Or, even more importantly to me, have anyone willingly help me do things that should have been so simple. He took me to the bathroom and let me do my business into the sink; my right leg became exhausted almost immediately, so I tried to finish quickly. Ian looked away, and didn’t turn around when I finished… So I took a careful seat right before the edge and knocked on the surface a few times.

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry.”

I gave him a thumbs up as he cleaned up the sink with a few splashes of water.

“Ian?” called Catherine’s voice from beyond the hallway. “It’s time to go!”

“Coming! I’m just helping Lenn!”

Ian carried me back to his room, placing me back in my bedding and next to the curious book.

“Need me to fix the towel? Or are you comfortable?”

I had made a cozy impression of myself in the fabric, so I gave him another quick thumbs up.

“Okay, I’ll be back,” Ian said, rising to his feet. “See you later, Lenn!”

When I nodded, he turned and disappeared into the hallway. I heard the whole family leave the house and close the front door behind them.


I read the ‘Mormon Book’ for about half an hour before I couldn’t hold my eyes (or the large book) open any longer. I didn’t understand what I was reading, but considering it was the first intact book I had ever studied, I tried my hardest to take it all in. At last, I couldn’t continue. My wound stung beneath my bandages, and as James directed, I tried my hardest not to itch any part of it. I didn’t feel ill, fortunately, just very tired. I don’t remember hearing the family come back into the house, but I did feel something tug and ruffle my hair. I opened my eyes, looked up, and saw Ian kneeling over me. He’d removed his tie, and his hair was much more natural and unkempt.

“Hey Lenn,” he said quietly. “Did you want to keep sleeping?”

I felt a tinge of nerves at seeing this boy sneak up on me so easily, but it wasn’t as if I were trying to hide. I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment and wiped the gunk from the corners. Out of instinct, I tried to tell him that I was okay to wake up, but again, only my lips moved. No sound arose from my mouth. My shoulders fell.

“It’s okay,” Ian said, sitting down on the floor. “You don’t have to talk out loud. If I look close, I can see what you’re saying.”

I nodded. Might as well try. I parted my lips wide and emphatically mouthed the words ‘water’ (after which I cupped my hand to my mouth) and ‘bath’ (after which I pretended to rub water under my arms).

“Water and a bath,” Ian said with a nod. “Or maybe you want to drink bath water?”

I smiled and shook my head. Then I mouthed the words ‘you’re funny’.

“I try!” Ian laughed, much to my surprise that he understood me.

I raised my arms up and gave myself willingly into Ian’s strong hands, and he carried me into the bathroom across the hall. Ian placed me on the counter and scratched his head.

“How do we do this?”

I stepped over to the sink and pointed. Then I shrugged.

“Yeah? You sure?” Ian asked. “I guess that makes sense. Better than the bathtub. Hang on.”

Ian crossed the room and opened the glass shower door. From inside he produced a small sliver of soap, only a remnant of a larger bar, and snapped off a brittle end. I quickly sat on the edge of the white ceramic sink, as my legs were already growing sore. The faucet produced water, and without informing Ian, I slid down into the sink.

“Whoa!” Ian shouted, shooting his hand forwards to catch me. “Hold on!”

Too late. I slid right into the water… the very freezing water. Needless to say, I didn’t know any better. Unfortunately, there was little escape for me, especially with how my bandages had been strapped around my shoulder and neck, and my right foot slid uselessly against the slick porcelain.

“Lenn!” Ian cried, much to my shock. Then, horrifyingly, Ian’s hands attempted to grab me. I admit that I panicked. It wasn’t Ian’s fault. I both attempted to avoid the cold water and Ian’s grasping hands, and there wasn’t a single thing I could do to quell the chaos. In a single painful moment, Ian’s hand forced me upwards, his fingers grabbing beneath my injured shoulder and the side of my head. He didn’t intend to, but he twisted me as I collapsed to the surface of the counter on my back. We both heard something pop quite loudly; I thought it had come from my spine, but I realized later it must have been something else entirely.

I couldn’t cry out, but searing pain shot across my chest and up my neck. When I did not move, Ian’s face turned to a look of horror.

“Lenn! What’s wrong!”

The immediate sign that something had gone terribly wrong was rather graphic, to say the least: I coughed up blood, and not a small amount. Much of it flew into the air and came back down, splashing on my face. When I found myself struggling to breathe past the fluid pouring down my trachea, I turned to my side and coughed up what I could.

“Dad!” Ian cried, exiting the bathroom with frantic thundering footsteps. I could already hear him crying. “Dad! Help! Lenn’s dying!”

I admit, I wasn’t sure what to do at that point. The amount of blood I was discharging onto the bathroom counter was greater than I had experienced at the river. My gagging increased dramatically, and I gasped to obtain some measure of oxygen. I couldn’t see at the time, but most of my wound, from my shoulder across my neck, had reopened, and was quickly staining through my bandages.

Seconds turned into an eternity before I heard the earthquake of footsteps enter the bathroom. Very strong hands lifted me into the air and faced me upwards; this was unfortunate, as the blood poured more freely inward, which I coughed out violently upon my face. The hands then flipped me to my side and slightly downwards towards my head, allowing the blood to flow out. At last, I could choke down a bit of breath past the fluid.

“Lenn!” Ian shouted, uncontrollably sobbing. “Lenn, please don’t die!”

“Please, James, do something to help him!” shouted Catherine.

“I… I really don’t know what to do…” James said quietly, allowing me to continue coughing and breathing. “Holding him like this will only do so much good. If he were human-size, I don’t… Here, Ian, hold him like this, I’ll go-”

“N-No! No, I don’t want to!”

I was fading away, but the thought of his words broke my heart.

“Here, Catherine, here, I need to grab a few things.”

I felt a transfer of Iatvi hands, and I continued to pour blood freely from my lips.

“Come on, Lenn!” Catherine gasped. “Hang on, dear! Stay with us!”

If anything happened to me after that, I don’t remember it.


‘Passed out’ was the term I would have used. But it apparently turned into something completely different and much more serious: a ‘coma’. At least James was fairly certain, considering how long I was unconscious. When my brain once again switched on like a dim light bulb, the first sensation I felt was complete and freezing exhaustion. I felt as if I could return to sleep and leave the world behind me; I didn’t desire to die, but if it were to happen at that particular moment, I wouldn’t have said no.

But then a few thoughts entered my mind about why I shouldn’t be inviting Death a second time. First, you, Aria. The intense desire to see you again had been dampened by my loss of blood, but your memory in my mind was the first to appear.

Then, Ian. The poor boy. If I had access to my otadik voice, none of this would have happened. To hear him crying and refusing to touch me brought me such a strong sensation of guilt, one I could feel beyond the cold. I’d committed a foolish act, and he had nearly killed me trying to correct it.

I opened my eyes. At first, it didn’t appear that my surroundings had greatly changed. A white ceiling, two ninety-degree corners, and a window to my right halfway up the wall. But I was no longer in the chair in Ian’s room. Instead, I was propped up in white bedding with a thick blue blanket over top, turned sideways and laid flat. To say I felt stiff was an immense understatement. I brought my hands to my bare chest. I couldn’t quite rest them comfortably; the bandages wrapped around my shoulder and my neck were much more padded than they had been previously. My hands dropped back to my sides, and I realized something truly dreadful as my fingers felt the skin around my waist.

I was completely naked. Then I realized something else: I was too tired to care.

To my side, an old television sat upon a bed table, quietly on. A rotating fan in the corner near the window was the only thing moving. Every few seconds, I would sense a breeze blow across me, and then it would fade. My attention wasn’t too sharp at that point, so the television voices and sounds became muddied.

I opened my mouth and blew out a breath. Everything about my throat felt sore, as if I’d been screaming at the top of my lungs for days. Obviously, I couldn’t feel my throat to check, but it was apparent that I was no longer bleeding, inside or out. My jaw went slack and popped from a lack of movement.

Then, I pressed air into my vocal cords and forced it upwards.

“Ahhhh…”

My eyes opened wide. It was rough as sandpaper, terrible as a cracking stone, but it was something. I formed sounds with my tongue and lips.

“Oohhhh. Eeeeee… ow.”

‘Eeee’ hurt a bit, having to pull the corners of my mouth and the skin beneath my jaw taut.

“Aria…” I whispered. I didn’t recognize the voice that emerged from me. “Aria…”

My mouth was incredibly parched, and my stomach cried out for something to fill it, but the excitement of gaining back some vocal ability made me incredibly excited. Now I could tell Ian all about the village, and about you Aria, and…

Ian.

My eyes closed, and I let out a breath. I had to apologize. I had to do something

I attempted to lift myself from my bedding. I might as well have pretended to call upon my muscles for all the good it did.

My eyes gazed out the window; it was a sunny day, perhaps late morning. Trees blew in a slight breeze, which I could imagine blowing through my hair whenever the fan landed on me. Now more conscious, I could hear the television more clearly. Whatever it was, it sounded like Iatvi arguing contentiously about… custody? Relationships? Divorce? It sounded like nonsense to me, but I listened to the nonsense because I could not do anything else.

I drifted off for a few hours more, perfectly comfortable and much more stable than I had ever been. Perhaps it was the fantastic amount of blood loss, but I couldn’t think of anywhere in the world I’d rather be. Comparing the Petersen home to the village… It would only have been better if you had been beside me.

I awoke to the sound of a door loudly closing. I looked over at the window, and the sun had changed position: no longer was even a sliver of light draped upon the sill.

“Mom?”

It was Ian.

“Ian,” I attempted to shout, but the grumble I created sounded like the croak of a frog and didn’t travel more than a few inches.

“Down here, hun,” I heard from a distant place. Ian’s footsteps disappeared into carpet, and I didn’t hear very much else for a while. I stayed quiet, hoping anyone would appear.

Then, I heard Ian’s energetic footsteps again, bounding across carpet and hardwood. They didn’t wander in my direction. Instead, they vanished again, and I heard a door close. The Ian I had known for two days would have checked on me, and I almost expected it. But he did not, and I remained in the quiet murmur of the room.

I’m unsure how long I remained resting in that room that day. It was long enough that the sun began to set bright orange beyond the house. I had dozed off when, again, the shutting of a door woke me. The steps that followed this door were heavy and slow, and by the lack of click-clacking heels, I figured it had to be James. I nearly dozed off again, expecting to be ignored.

But then an enormous presence entered the room.

My eyes traveled upwards. It was indeed James, dressed in a white shirt and black tie, wearing a different pair of glasses than I’d seen him wear. He did not notice that my eyes had opened and had begun watching him, nor do I think he even thought to see if I had woken up. Instead, he stepped into the room, clicked on a lamp in the corner that gave the room a warm glow, and stepped further into the room to turn off the television. Some sounds echoed, and at first I thought he was rifling through plastic bags. But he returned into my sight donning blue rubber gloves.

Then he scared heaven and hell out of me by lifting the blue blanket. My hands immediately covered my crotch and my voice put out as desperate a cry as it could: it sounded like a saw jamming halfway through a stubborn piece of oak.

“Oh!” James exclaimed, hearing my voice and realizing my horrified expression. He placed the blanket back down. “Lenn! Good heavens, you’re awake! I’m sorry about that, I… I should have checked first!”

V-Vis sulm,” I gasped, my throat burning. The rasp that came out of my mouth was horrible, but it brought a light to James’s face.

“Lenn!” he said breathless, stepping around the bed to sit at my side. “You spoke! I think. Say something else!”

My eyes tightly closed shut, and I tried to make my voice a bit more smooth.

Medirke… “ I cleared my throat. “Medirke… lai ke ilir?

“I’m not sure what that means,” James said. “But I’m glad you said it.”

A bit of my nerves returned.

Dev…” I whispered. “Neh nedia… Oh. S-Sorry, I… Mis… Mister Petersen, I didn’t mean…”

“Oh, come now Lenn,” James said. “Call me James. You’ve been through so much, there’s no need for any of that.”

“J… James,” I said, fighting the urge to fall silent. “Wh-Where is Ian?”

James’s expression fell a bit.

“He’s home. Probably in his room. I tried to convince him to watch over you when he came home from school, but… He feels responsible for everything.”

“…my fault,” I whispered, my voice fading. “My fault.”

“Now now, it’s okay,” James said, waving his hand. “Let’s not get into it, we’ve got to make sure you’re taken care of first. You’ve been unconscious for quite a while, and we need to get some food and water in you.”

“How… long?” I asked.

“About three days.”

Something clicked.

“I’m naked… be… because I…”

James smiled warmly.

“I’m a doctor,” he said. “This is pretty standard stuff. Actually, with a young man your size, cleaning was very easy. During my residency, we would have to care for patients that were well over five-hundred pounds, sometimes more.”

My eyes widened. I couldn’t even imagine an Iatvi so large.

“So, since you have a voice,” James said. “I don’t suppose you could tell me if your bedding feels wet?”

My hands brushed the blanket on top of me, and I wiggled to feel beneath. I shook my head.

“It’s… not,” I growled. Not that I wanted to, of course, my voice merely sounded like an angry tiger covered in spiders.

“Excellent,” he said. “Well, let me go get the dropper and we can get some fluids in you. I really worried about keeping you hydrated. With how much blood you’ve lost, you’re going to need it.”

I nodded, and James stepped out of the room.


Catherine came and visited me soon after, and before my voice disappeared for the night, I asked her where my pants had gone. She replied that she had washed them, but upon seeing their terrible state of disrepair, told me that she had decided to use them as a template for a new pair of pants. She shocked me ever further by saying they were already finished for me to try on when I had the energy to stand. She placed the finished product on the bed next to me; they were dark brown, almost the same color as my original pair. I failed to thank her enough as my throat finally seized up.

Ian did not visit me that night. Nor did he visit me for the next three days, though I heard him go to and fro through the house. I saw him once out of the corner of my eye when his footsteps woke me from sleep, but he wasn’t looking into the room, perhaps purposefully.

I knew it wasn’t because he no longer liked me. No, it’s because he was scared of me. I overheard James telling him I could speak, but there wasn’t any joy in his voice from hearing this news. He was afraid of what I might say. That I would berate him for his carelessness. That I would yell at him and tell him how horrible he was. This was the furthest thing from my mind, but he didn’t know that, and he didn’t accept it when his parents told him as much.

He didn’t want to hear it from them. He needed to hear it from me.

On Friday night, I heard Ian tell Catherine that he would be studying with some boy named Taylor at this friend’s house around six-thirty. She told him to be back at nine o’clock. So I waited until about eight-thirty to enact my plan; below the television was a black box that told the time in dim red numbers, so I knew I wasn’t late. For the first time in nearly a week, I lifted myself from my bedding. I could manage it, but only just. I crawled over to my new pair of pants, and slid them up my legs with a bit of difficulty; while the width and length of the leggings were perfect, the waist was a bit too wide. Fortunately, Catherine had thought of everything. Around the top was a pair of thick drawstrings, something I had never had. I figured their function, though, and quickly tied them into a knot and prepared myself for the journey.

My bandages made moving stiff and inflexible, but the bed upon which I lay had a blanket with edges that hovered only a few inches from the floor. It only took me a few moments to drop to the carpet safely. Hobbling forwards, I walked out the door onto a solid floor, and recognized where I was in relation to everything else: I had been resting in a guest room at the end of a short hallway that led into the dining room. It took about five minutes with a short break in between to cross the kitchen. My legs were exhausted by the time I reached Ian’s door, and my sore throat did me no favors trying to breathe.

Thankful that the door was ajar, I stepped inside the room and made my way towards Ian’s bed. With the chair no longer in the way and most of the clothing cleaned up, I had no trouble crossing the floor. But the lamp was not on, nor was the upper light, so finding my way up the bed in the dark was a bit of a challenge.

I was seated on the edge of the bed when, ten minutes later, I heard the front door open and close. Enormous footsteps boomed across the solid floor, onto the carpet of the hallway, and then a boy opened the bedroom door. With a click, Ian’s room became flooded with light, and Ian didn’t notice me at first. He dropped his backpack near the door and began the process of removing his shoes when his eyes finally met mine.

He froze, despite my pleasant demeanor. And then, he cast his eyes away from me and nearly turned to leave the room.

“Ian,” I whispered, my voice crinkled like paper.

Ian looked back at me, almost frightened.

“Come here,” I said gently. I patted Ian’s bed right beside me.

After a moment’s hesitation, Ian obeyed. He finished removing his shoes and he crossed his room. Then he took an enormous seat about a foot away from me, the mattress springs groaning. He did not look down at me, instead looking at his folded hands. I allowed the silence to continue for a moment while I contemplated on what to say.

“You were trying to help me.”

Ian said nothing.

“Now I know,” I said with a light laugh. “Iatvi sinks don’t turn on with warm water.”

Ian frowned.

“Yee-aht-vee?

“Oh, sorry,” I mumbled, folding my arms as best I could without causing discomfort. “Iatvi means human. I haven’t spoken English for a while.”

It was quiet for a moment more.

“You have an accent.”

“Do I?” I thought I hid it pretty well. Obviously not.

“Yeah. I’m glad you can speak.”

“Me too. Now I can ask you questions about the Mormon book.”

“It’s ‘Book of Mormon’.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said.”

Ian almost smirked, but then his shoulders fell back down.

Careful not to bend my knee too far backwards, I hauled myself to my feet. Ian did not look over. Despite the downward curve of the bed when approaching him, I managed to walk over to the boy. From his seated position, I stood many inches below his shoulder. I remember clearly that he wore the same gray tank top that he’d worn when he found me. When I reached him, I leaned against his upper arm as one would rest against a wall, and folded my hands. He was quite warm. I felt him pull away slightly, but when I didn’t move, he remained stable.

“Will you be all right?” I asked quietly.

For a moment, he didn’t answer. But then I felt his body begin to tremble, and I turned myself (with as much care as possible) to look up at his face. His neutral expression had been replaced with a growing face of sorrow, and quickly, he pulled in desperate breaths and began to cry.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you…” he whispered, a few tears falling from his eyes. He wiped them away with his hand, but missed a few, which fell onto his lap.

“I know you didn’t.”

He continued to cry for a moment, but let his tears fall as his hand came and wrapped itself around my middle to hold me in place against his arm. It was an awkward embrace.

“Do you know what ‘unlo kadomah’ means?”

Ian shook his head, sniffing.

“It means ‘what a foolish boy’. I always said that to my boy students whenever they dropped their bags or writing boards. But I made a much bigger mistake than that. ‘Via kadomah’. I am the foolish boy, and you were trying to correct my mistake.”

I patted the back of his hand.

“It’s not your fault.”

“But you could have died,” Ian said, his voice shaking. “I almost killed you.”

Neh monria lai devir agra.

Ian frowned and finally looked down at me.

“…what does that mean?”

“I didn’t need all that blood,” I said with a smile, patting his arm. “I had just enough. Besides, for all we know, you might have brought my voice back.”

Ian took a few breaths.

“Can… can I hold you?”

“And take me where?”

“Just right here.”

“That’s fine, I guess.”

Ian’s hands wrapped around my waist, and held me in his outstretched arms for a moment. Then, he brought me close and pressed me against his chest; by far the strangest hug I’d ever received, but not an unwelcome one. His chin touched the top of my head.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, his youthful voice rumbling.

Vah sulm, Ian,” I said. “You’re okay.”

After a moment, he held me outwards again. His grip was very gentle, much more gentle than it had been previously.

“Are you tired?” I asked.

Ian shook his head.

“I’m not. Are you?”

“I’ve been asleep all day. I can probably stay up for a while.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to watch you play your video game again,” I said. “I have a lot of questions.”

Ian grinned.

“Sure.”


The next while was very different than the week before. I had slept for most of the day, so my head was much clearer. Ian set me up in the same chair as before, laying down his pillow to support my back. The game he began to play was actually different from the one before, which confused me initially: it’s bright and cartoony nature looked much like the last one. But even Ian’s controller was different. This particular game looked three-dimensional like the last, but the characters only moved up, down, and sideways. There were dozens of different characters to choose from, some malevolent and large, some that looked like children, and some that appeared like a combination of an animal and an Iatvi combined. Ian chose a character that looked like a man in a great suit of armor, although Ian quickly corrected me and told me the character was a woman. This would have shocked the gatherers, don’t you think? The point of the game was, according to Ian: “to hit the bad guys and make them fall off the platform”. Sounded simple enough; many of the children I taught at the village played ‘Ruler of the Mountain’.

It was not simple. Characters that Ian didn’t control fought back with such speed that I couldn’t keep track of them by their bodies; I could only follow the colored symbol that floated over their heads (unreal, I know). Ian’s character could shoot balls of light from a gun, and Ian used them to great effect. His ‘enemies’ kicked and punched and slashed until each fell off the stage in a great explosion. I mentioned to Ian that I was glad I didn’t explode every time I fell to the floor. He laughed at that.

At the end of the match (which Ian’s character won handily), Ian stood up and did something remarkable: he snapped his game into pieces with his hands. At least, it seemed he did. In fact, the parts he broke off were controllers themselves, and to my horror, he placed one of these gray devices into my lap. It wasn’t heavy at all. Much like Ian’s, this controller had a rubber peg that rotated on the left, four round buttons organized to form a diamond on the right, and a smaller square button besides those. Worse, Ian pointed out two more buttons on the back. Then Ian sat down and told me that we were going to play against each other.

“No no no,” I said, not daring to touch the plastic device. “No way I can play this…”

“Come on, Lenn! I know you can do it! We’ll go really slow, and I won’t hit you at all.”

“In real life or in the game?”

Ian giggled.
“Both, duh!”

There were so many choices in this game, I couldn’t wrap my mind around it all. I let Ian choose everything except which character I would be. On this, he insisted I choose.

“Who looks cool to you?”

‘Cool’? I had no clue. I had never even pressed a button in my life. As I pressed one of them down, something beneath the circle cracked, and I thought I broke it. But I pressed down again, and it cracked again. I held it down. It wasn’t difficult to keep it that way.

“Whoops,” Ian said, snapping up my attention. “You took us back. Hang on.”

“O-Oh,” I said, my face turning red. “I didn’t break it, did I?”

“No,” Ian said simply. “You just took us back to the last menu.”

“What’s… a menu?”

The screen then showed the nearly-infinite list of characters again, and he pointed to the television.

“This screen is a menu. The character menu.”

“Oh.”

“Here, I’ll show you how to choose. First, you use this and move it around. That will move the hand on the screen, see?”

I’m not sure this ‘stick’ filled me with much ‘joy’. The surface of this ‘joystick’ was textured and a little bigger than the width of my hand. I found it rotated with remarkable ease. I looked at the joystick, then up at the screen; it did indeed move the colored hand around the ‘menu’. I continued moving it around in awe.

“There! Then, once the hand hovers over the character you want, press this button.”

“Uh… okay.”

I couldn’t decide, so I went with the first character “my hand” was over. I pressed the button, and the ‘announcer’ voice of the game loudly said the character’s name. I honestly don’t remember it. Ian then chose his character, and the game started.

I chose to attribute my inability to play the game to my exhaustion. I could move my character left and right, punch, and jump, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around how to perform any of these three actions in unison like Ian. After a few minutes, I felt too embarrassed to continue. I told Ian that playing was a bit too taxing on me, and I insisted on watching him play instead. I could tell this wounded my young friend a bit, so I promised that when I was feeling better, I’d practice and play with him. He accepted this and continued.


I slept in the guest room again, and everyone in the house agreed that there was little problem allowing me to take the whole thing to myself. They even left me a shallow bowl of water and another filled with some orange crackers on the side of the bed in case I got hungry during the night. This time I had a voice, and told them I didn’t deserve any of their kindness.

“Oh, nonsense,” Catherine said. “You’ve been through more than anyone I’ve ever met, and we treat all of our guests when they’re in need. Don’t we, James?”

“It’s true. I haven’t ever had one of my patients staying in our home, but I’d treat you no differently than if you were a patient at my clinic.”

“And you’re my brother,” Ian added solemnly, kneeling next to the bed over me. “It’s my fault I made things worse and I have to make it up to you.”

“Brother?” I heard Catherine whisper to James. He acknowledged her whisper, but didn’t say anything.

“I told you, Ian,” I whispered, my throat still sore and parched. “You have nothing to apologize for.”

“Everything resolved itself all right,” James said, resting his hand on his son’s head. “Lenn is safe, and now you know how to treat him carefully. If you don’t know how to do something, Lenn can tell you now, or you can always ask me.”

I lifted my hand and reached out to Ian, just as I did a week ago. He quickly took my hand in his fingers.

“We have a lot to talk about,” I told him. “I have so many questions.”

Ian nodded.

“I’ll be home all day, so we can. Do you think Aaron and Chris could come over too?”

“He might be a little too exhausted to handle all three of you boys,” Catherine said.

I grinned, feeling exactly that.

“I still want to talk to you about needing a body to get to heaven.”

“You remembered what I said?”

I nodded, closing my eyes.

“I told you, I want to learn more about this Mormon book.”

“‘Book of Mormon’.”

“That’s what I said.”

“You had him reading scriptures?” James asked with surprise, ruffling Ian’s hair.

“Yeah,” he explained. “He wondered where we were going last Sunday, and I tried to talk to him about church before we left. And then… all this happened. I thought for sure when I hurt you, Lenn, you wouldn’t want to talk to me ever again.”

“Ian,” I growled. I removed my hand from Ian’s fingers and slapped his thumb. “Don’t be silly, of course I’m going to talk to you now that I can.”

Ian managed a smile as James and Catherine chuckled.

“All right,” James said. “Come on, everyone, time for bed. Let’s let Lenn get some rest.”

“Night, Lenn,” Ian said, standing. He waved at me, and I waved back.

I fell asleep quickly. But something happened that night that I did not expect, considering everything that had happened in that week. I’m not sure what time of night it was, but my mind switched on at the sound of enormous heel steps on wood. The room was dark save for the moonlight outside the window, and to be honest, the sound of this Iatvi approaching in the middle of the night scared me silent. A giant shadow entered the room and closed the door behind them. I couldn’t make out who it was until it walked around the bed on which I laid and fell upon the mattress. I rocked and rumbled, and looked towards the figure who now laid next to me. This Iatvi pulled up a blanket around his shoulders that he’d brought with him. I could make out little detail of this human’s face. To my dread, warm fingers spread across the blanket that covered my stomach and the lower parts of my chest.

Then he began to cry.

“Ian…?” I whispered, placing my hand upon one of his knuckles.

“I had… a n-nightmare…” he sobbed. His hand clung to me.

“…about what happened?” I asked.

Ian made no noise to the affirmative, but I knew. I hummed, rubbing the tip of Ian’s finger.

“Get some sleep. We can talk in the morning.”

Ian hummed, and his hand withdrew. He continued to sob, but pretty soon I heard his breath turn into light snoring.

I Am Lenn – Chapter Three

The afternoon continued in a very strange way.

Although I was still confined to my bedding, Ian was more than excited to have someone to talk to. He showed me things that I had only read about in Iatvi advertisements. I’m sure you know what a ‘phone’ is. But you and I only knew them as enormous and clunky plastic devices with loud, angry ringing and cords everywhere. No, the phone that Ian showed me was a marvel, a thin square of glass, plastic, and metal with no cords and an incredibly smooth screen that looked much like a hand-held television with incredible clarity. Better yet, he brought the phone into my arm’s reach, and I realized that I could move the contents of the screen with my hand, as easily as if I slid a piece of paper across a table. Pictures flashed behind the screen, showing off images of Ian’s family, strange homes and places I had never seen before. The pictures even moved like a movie, and combined with sounds. This phone made me feel as if I were looking through someone else’s eyes, looking into rooms and conversing with Iatvi as if I were their size. You’ve probably heard Iatvi music as well, but the songs that Ian had me listen to were fast-paced and electronic. Some were played with string instruments, some featured pianos, and some were played with instruments I did not recognize. I know you hate it when I say things like this, but they made me wish for legs I could dance with.

Then, with this magical device, Ian ‘looked up’ information about polio, as both of us were curious. I learned later that when Iatvi ‘look up’ information, it meant they learned things from something called the ‘internet’. I still don’t understand how it works, but it is extremely useful. He quoted what was written about polio, and I later wrote it all down so I could explain it to you and study it myself. He said polio “is a contagious viral illness that in its most severe form causes nerve injury leading to paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death”. This sounded familiar, except I had no idea I could have simply died as a child.

To my utter horror (and I’m sorry for quoting what he read to me), he explained how I probably became sick with the disease as a child: “The polio virus is usually spread from person to person through…” He paused. “…infected fecal matter entering the mouth. It may also be spread by food or water containing human feces and less commonly from infected saliva.”

Ian said the words, looked at my expression, and immediately expressed regret for reading the description. My eyes grew wide and I wore a face of complete disgust. How? How? How could this have happened? And why was I unique? No one else I knew had a leg like mine. I knew infants in the village sometimes died of illness. I knew our food and water was always of questionable quality. But while I knew the village we lived in was unclean for how many of us lived together, I never contemplated how filthy the conditions actually were. Didn’t we live the right way? Every gatherer I knew hated the pristine environments Iatvi lived in. But if I had polio like James said… It was much worse than I ever imagined. If they only knew what I knew. If they only knew what Iatvi knew.

I wrote a note to Ian asking how polio could be treated. He read the following: “The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends polio vaccination boosters for travelers and those who live in countries where the disease is occurring. Once infected there is no specific treatment.”

No cure. James had said as much. But I only thought of you. I wrote another note to him: “What is vaccination?”

“It’s a shot that doctors give you… I think Dad told me that vaccines have a dead version of the virus that your body fights off and makes you immune.”

I wrote another note, aware of how black my hands had become and how rapidly the graphite was shrinking: “How do you make a vaccine?”

“Hmm…”

Apparently, Ian’s device had all the answers.

“To create vaccines, viruses are completely inactivated (or killed) with chemicals. By killing the virus, it cannot reproduce itself or cause disease. Polio, hepatitis A, influenza, and rabies vaccines are made this way. Because the virus is still ‘seen’ by the body, cells of the immune system that protect against disease are generated and generally last a lifetime.”

I ignored all the other diseases, although in hindsight I probably shouldn’t have: they were no doubt all illnesses our people were dying from. Something you could die from in an instant, Aria. I couldn’t stand it. I wrote another note: “What chemicals?”

Ian paused, swiping and typing on the phone’s screen.

“Aluminum salts… antibiotics, uh… formaldehyde… That’s all it says.”

I wrote: “Do you have those? Can you make a vaccine?”

Ian frowned as he read the question.

“How come? Do you know someone who needs one?”

I nodded.

“I don’t know… We can’t even give you any medicine because we wouldn’t know how much would hurt you. If we tried to give you a vaccine, you could die.”

I closed my eyes and covered them with my hand. I didn’t know the truth. My whole life, I never knew why my leg was so bent and powerless. Our herbalist didn’t know. You didn’t know, surely. How could we? I wrote another note and gave it to Ian.

“Hang on,” he said, stepping out of my sight and into the hallway. I waited with severe anguish from the very thought of you suffering the way I did. I thought of you with thin, crooked knees, walking with wooden crutches, enduring sores under your arms, crawling in the dirt, every attempted step filled with pain. I thought of you having to care for someone like me all over again, making you live with a child just like me, someone you would love but ultimately have to throw away when the animals came, or the food ran out, or when the rains fell…

Hindsight is a curse. I know that if I had said such things to you, you would have struck me. And I would have deserved it.

Ian stepped into the room first, followed by James.

“Hi Lenn,” James said. “Ian told me you have questions about vaccines.”

I nodded, and repeated my question onto another piece of paper. He bent down low to take it.

“Can I make a vaccine?” he read. “Me personally, no. There are many companies that make them, though. What makes you ask?”

“I’ve been looking up stuff about polio, and reading it to him. There were some… things that don’t sound too good about it, like how it spreads.”

“Oh,” James said. “Yeah, you read that, huh? I know what you’re talking about. Lenn, I told you that polio can’t be cured. A vaccine doesn’t cure, it makes already healthy people immune to it.”

I quickly nodded, and wrote. James read it.

“Vaccine for a friend?”

I frowned and froze. I felt I was giving up way too much information about myself way too quickly to people I didn’t know, especially to Iatvi. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to make up my mind, so I committed. I told them your name.

James read my note.

“‘My friend Aria. I need a vaccine for her.’”

I wrote another on a clean page.

“‘She’s special to me. She’s all I have left.’”

James frowned.

“Lenn, I have no way of knowing if our vaccines would work. They would most likely hurt her instead of help. There’s no way to know.”

I furiously scribbled my response.

It said: “She can’t become me.”

“Lenn, I…”

I was already writing.

“Don’t let her become me.”

I didn’t even hand the note over before writing another one.

“Please help her!”

I wrote another.

“Help me help-”

I even tried to scream, pounding my arms into my bedding and mouthing the words I had written. I yearned furiously to release the sadness that had been refused its outlet. No sound. Useless. Hollow and broken.

James picked up my last few, and read them. As I would find out later, this responsible doctor told me that he regretted his response.

“I’m sorry, Lenn,” he said. “I can’t help you.”

I looked up at Ian and James, who looked away and fell silent. James sighed, and Ian looked to his dad for any other answer.

I knew I was being foolish. I knew I was asking for too much. A miracle, maybe. An Iatvi miracle. And worse, I couldn’t know if I was overreacting or acting appropriately. I didn’t know if the most beloved piece of what heart I had left was on the verge of a death that could be prevented. I was too distant from you. I couldn’t save you like you had saved me. I had always been horrendously useless, and nothing but a burden to you, the Iatvi who stood above me, and to everyone else. The world left me behind, and I hated it. But worse, I left you behind. And the last words I said to you made certain that you would forget me.

I snapped. I shook my head violently despite the sting of my wounds and threw the piece of graphite and pad of paper from my lap. They fell to the floor… and I cried. No, I mourned. I mourned for you as if you were already gone. I mourned and pitied myself and my inability to do anything until I could no longer breathe. I could not call out your name. I could not scream at my newfound keepers. I could not crawl away into a dark place and rot. I mourned, and likely opened my wounds afresh from my anguish. Time abandoned me again. I may have heard the words: “What happened,” and, “Let’s leave him alone for now,” but my mind did not care. I wished only for two things: to either see you again and beg for your forgiveness, or to die.

I cried. Long enough to completely exhaust me, which, admittedly, probably wasn’t as long as I thought. I fell asleep from exhaustion between the afternoon and the deep evening. When I awoke, the room was much darker despite the yellow light that still shone from the lamp behind me and my chair.

Again, fear gripped me, if only for the fact that I’d spent so much time in Ian’s bedroom, denying him entry because of my outburst. For a fair amount of time, I remained seated in the enormous chair and my comfortable bedding; I knew that attempting to move would be more than a bad idea.

My mental state had changed enough that some reason had returned, yes. But when I thought of you, it filled me with a foolish determination to do… something. It wasn’t just restlessness. I had been floating, crawling, pressing my feet into concrete and dirt for days.The urge to continue moving filled me; I couldn’t simply wait to be doted on. The dark side of my mind continually reminded me that I was useless and crippled, but I had to prove that it wasn’t true. If not to myself, then to the Iatvi who were watching over me.

I know what you would say to me: “Saika, you idiot. Rest. Save your strength.”

But I had to do this.

I lifted myself. The pain was bearable. At first. I then heaved myself sideways with my arms, using all my strength to rotate my weighty legs in unison to remain straight. My legs moved just fine (unbelievable, I know), but my left arm and my unsteady neck exploded with pain, and made me pause. I could not see the thick bandages, but I could already imagine the wound opening and continuing to bleed. Again, I pressed my arms down to slide myself, aiming for the right side of the fabric chair. I ignored the inflammation, and pressed down again.

It took me about ten minutes to slowly remove myself from my thick bedding. Once on the flat surface of the chair, my troubles were greatly lessened. A few moments later, I slid my legs over the side of the great seat. The distance to the floor was only two, perhaps one and a half of my height. Simple. And yet, the edge of the fabric chair was curved, and offered no easy handhold to gently descend. So, I crawled myself to the rear of the chair where the back of the padding met with the wooden rear; I could wedge my fingers into the flat gap it provided.

I did not hesitate. I heaved my legs over the side, bent down to slide my hands into the corner of the joint, and let gravity take me.

My drop began as planned. My hands held fast as my body twisted 180 degrees to face the chair. James and Ian were right: I prided myself on my arm strength, if nothing else. Holding myself in the air, I did my best to look down. Only a few inches to fall, maybe a foot. On a count of three, I released my grip.

I did not fall straight. Because of course I didn’t. My lame leg bent forwards and caught the crossbar of the chair that I didn’t realize existed. This sent me into a head-over-heels spiral that only lasted a split second, but resulted in me smashing into the thick and plush carpet flat on my back. I let out a guttural whine as air escaped me. My entire wound flared, but my warped mind felt a sense of accomplishment once I realized that I hadn’t killed myself: I had achieved part one of my goal.

After about five minutes of resting on the carpet to allow the pain in my neck to subside, I thought to myself, where to go?

From my position on the floor, several things became immediately apparent. Just as when I woke up, the smell hit me first. Instead of a semi-pleasant identifying scent, it had officially been replaced with the funk of dirty feet. Lifting myself into a seated position, I noticed that the boy Ian was a fairly typical child, even for our people. Strewn about the white-and-black speckled carpet were discarded items of clothing, the occasional notebook and piece of crinkled paper, empty soda cans beneath the bed, and specks of dust and debris that desperately needed a good vacuuming.

My left knee from the fall grew sore immediately. My right, not as much. As I could see nothing I might use as a crutch, I supposed I would have to do this the hard way until I found a wall I could lean on. I chose a direction, and probably the most stupid one imaginable: towards the door of the bedroom. Despite the pain of twisting and turning, I hauled myself to my feet and stepped, one foot after the other, towards the exit.

It took me a good few minutes to get to the dresser upon which Ian had first placed me. Once there, however, I heavily leaned upon it. Careful not to fully bend my left backwards, I led myself by my hand and shimmied further towards the door at a much greater speed. I was sweating rather profusely when I finally arrived at my destination, and not due to the temperature of the room. I also noticed a fairly worrying characteristic of my adjusted larynx: under strain, it closed up rapidly, and made it difficult to breathe. I took a quick rest to gain my bearings, and decided to move much slower.

It was then that my greatest fear was all for naught: the bedroom door had remained open. I shoved it, and with the utmost quiet from the hinges, the door opened with a great amount of ease.

The hallway was dark. I peered around the corner in both directions. To my left was an end to the hallway, with a single door at the very end and one beside it to the right. I looked the other direction, and apart from the one door on the left, there appeared to be an opening into a colossal room from which bright lights emanated. Naturally for Iatvi, the hallway was immaculate, and offered no places to hide should any giants come in this direction. Fair enough, I said to myself, and despite the continuing pain in my neck and my shoulder, I limped around the corner and did my best to hurry.

Oh, the smell of roasted meat… I hadn’t eaten anything but black moss and roots in days. As I hobbled closer to the room of bright lights, the scent grew stronger and stronger. Although I doubted such a feast would be awaiting me on the floor of the room ahead of me, I decided I would do everything in my power to climb up to it and eat my fill.

I saw no movement further into the house beyond the lit room, but I heard the sound of a television murmuring deeper into the home, the sound of quiet conversation, and that infernal metallic clicking noise. I looked, and on the opposite side of the hallway was a strange device plugged into an outlet. Whenever the device clicked, a red light would also blink on and then immediately fade. I learned later that this startling device was meant to keep insects and other pests out of the home with something called ‘ultrasound’; apparently, it was effective at deterring me as well, and I hated passing by it.

On my strong foot and with the support of the hallway wall, it only took me a minute or so to reach the wide room. And ‘wide’ hardly described it. In fact, it appeared that this room was actually three combined into one: an obvious kitchen, perhaps a living room beyond a pair of banisters with a single door that no doubt led outside, and a dining room further in. I peered around the corner, keeping myself in the shadows as much as possible. I viewed a building-sized stainless steel refrigerator, a half-as-large stainless steel dishwasher and dark black oven, bright white wooden cupboards and drawers, the edges of dark marble countertops, and a large kitchen island the same color as the rest of the cupboards that dominated the center. Beside the hardwood pathway, the floor of the kitchen proper was decorated with a myriad of decorative tiles in a variety of complementary colors, making the kitchen feel remarkably elegant. In the dining room, I could see iron chairs and a tall hardwood dining table, though everything else that might have been there was concealed.

Feeling rather exposed in the bare hallway, I dared: using my strong right leg, I hopped into the kitchen towards the island. My reverse knee immediately groaned under the strain, but I ignored it. After all, the fear of my surroundings was more than enough to focus my attention. I finally collapsed against the wall of the island and took a deserved breath.

At this point, I had even less of an idea of where I intended to go. It was fairly obvious that there were no cords or descending plant vines with which I could climb to the counters above. No meat for me, I supposed. From my position on the island, I saw that it also had several cupboards attached to it. Curious, I stepped around the cupboard I leaned upon and opened it. Though dark within, I could make out two shelves that held the reflection of spotless pots and pans, trays, and cooling racks. Of course, they were all neatly organized with large pots upon the bottom shelf and smaller upon the upper.

From what the gatherers had told me when I was younger, there were definitely dirtier and more disordered residences. Was it James who kept all of the homemaking running smoothly? After all, it couldn’t have been Ian. Children are children.

The question answered itself in the most frightening way possible. I couldn’t see it properly from my position behind the island, but the loud click of the front door made my heart leap up into my weak throat. My first instinct was to climb into the island cupboard, and I obeyed it without question. The cupboard door closed most of the way, leaving me just a vertical line of light with which to peer through.

Footsteps. Click-clacking ones. Heels. The Iatvi that entered the house headed straight for the kitchen towards my hiding place, and I had a front-row seat to her destination.

Black dress shoes with shallow heels. Bare ivory legs. A dark-gray skirt and a suit jacket of similar color. All the way to the top, she wore a complex bun of deep brown sparsed with aged graying hairs. She stood in place for a few moments, apparently stirring something on the stove. The smell of meat hit me in the back of the nose and made me salivate.

She hummed with satisfaction, tapped her utensil against the edge of whatever the food was cooking in. She then turned away and disappeared from my sight.

I let out a breath. Close.

Then I heard a voice.

“Mom!”

Thundering footsteps up carpet, and then equally powerful steps thumping into hardwood.

“Hi Ian,” said the light voice of the woman. “I heard we have a guest.”

“You didn’t tell anyone about him, did you?”

“No, I didn’t. But why? When your father told me we had one of his patients in our home, I thought he had brought some stranger in to sleep on our couch!”

“Not the couch,” Ian said. “You’ve got to see him, he’s awesome. I think he’s sleeping right now, but I want to introduce you.”

“Awesome?” asked Ian’s mother. “What’s all this about? What’s with all the secrecy?”

“You’ll see!”

With that, the two of them proceeded down the hallway from whence I’d come. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for the dreadful moment. All was silent. Both of their voices were hushed. Then Ian spoke up.

“Lenn?” he whispered, his voice barely audible past the hallway. “Lenn, where did you go? Come on out, it’s okay…”

“What is Lenn?” asked his mother.

The question went unanswered. Within ten seconds, Ian’s voice became panicked.

“Lenn!” he cried, his voice quite loud. “Lenn, please! Where did you go! Oh no… No no no…”

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Watch your feet, Mom,” Ian said, breathless. “He could be anywhere. Lenn! Don’t be afraid! I know you can’t speak, but… bang on something! Come on! Let me know where you are!”

This continued for about a minute, with Ian’s mother becoming more confused as time went on. Finally, a pair of mountainous footsteps emerged from the hallway, and Ian’s voice exploded.

“Dad!” he cried. “Dad! Lenn’s gone! I can’t find him!”

No sound came for about five seconds. Then, another pair of footsteps emerged from somewhere beyond the kitchen.

“Are you sure, Ian? He didn’t just dig himself further into the towel?”

“I lifted it up and everything! I looked under my bed, behind my dresser and behind the TV… I can’t find him!”

“James, I’m very confused…”

“I know, dear, I know… Give us a moment, we’ll explain everything.”

Three pairs of Iatvi feet proceeded down the hallway to Ian’s room, and hushed whispers filled it immediately. Ian’s voice was less hushed, crying out for me every few seconds.

My eyes were still shut tight as I listened to the cacophony. What to do, what to do? The thought of standing in the middle of the floor only to be discovered by not one, not two, but three Iatvi filled me with incomprehensible fear. At the same time, my conscience didn’t dare allow me to cause Ian and James such incredible worry; my wounds were nowhere near healing, and it wasn’t as if I could simply leave their care. It didn’t seem I had any other choice. Again, my foolish decisions had placed me in a terrible position.

The three Iatvi were still feverishly searching for me when I gathered enough nerve to open the island cupboard. On my right leg, I closed the cupboard and leaned against it, stepping towards the open floor. By the time I could peer down the hallway, the desperation in the bedroom had descended into a tender form of mourning. I could hear it in Ian’s tone. He thought I’d left for good.

I shook my head. I could hear your voice loud and clear: I was a saika. A real idiot.

I walked into the open, supported by my right leg and the tender strength of my left, and once I’d reached roughly the center of the space, I sat upon the floor with my legs outstretched and waited. I didn’t know which was worse at this point: my fear of being discovered, or of listening to the Iatvi speak.

James consoled Ian, telling him it wasn’t his fault that I’d disappeared. That I had my own life and worries to deal with, and that Ian couldn’t have known what they were. James also described as best he could to his wife about what I was. She seemed incredulous at first, but as she listened to her son’s reaction, it became apparent to her that some measure of James’ story was true. And most painful of all, I could hear Ian crying.

Thirty seconds passed. Then, I heard them exit the room. Ian was supported with James’ arm around his shoulders, followed by his mother behind them. It wasn’t more than a short moment once they’d turned the corner that Ian and James’s eyes fell upon me.

Ian gasped first.

“Lenn!” he cried, and ran towards me at a frightening pace. Before I could scramble backwards in horror, he fell to the ground before me with the weight of a rockslide. He folded his bare legs, wrapped both of his hands around my waist, and hauled me up into the air. My stomach sunk into my feet, but Ian’s face told me everything I needed to know about his intentions: tears flooded his puffed-up eyes, but he wore a great wrinkleless smile. His hands were warm, and his grip was a bit tight, but I patted my hands on the backs of his and returned a sheepish expression. James leaned down beside his son and also beamed down on me as if sure that I hadn’t departed.

Ian’s mother, on the other hand, had a look of absolute shock, and my fear spiked as I looked at her. Her hands gathered themselves as she stood back and examined me from afar. Her expression looked like one I would have had if a cockroach appeared in the school in the dead of night.

“Mom, Mom! This is Lenn!” he said, twisting around and showing me to her. “I knew he didn’t leave!”

“I’m certainly glad he didn’t,” James said, placing his hand on Ian’s shoulder. “Who knows what would have happened to him. Be careful, Ian, don’t hold him too tightly.”

“Oh. Sorry Lenn.”

“What…” Ian’s mother whispered. “What is it?”

He,” Ian corrected her. “And we have no idea! He’s just… small!”

I frowned at Ian and gave him the first thumbs down I’d ever given someone. He caught a glance at me.

“Oh, uh…” he said with a laugh. “Not small?”

I gave him a confident affirmative in the form of a thumbs up. Ian laughed.

“Are you okay, Lenn?” James asked me. “From our conversation before? I’m sorry I don’t have more answers for you.”

I looked up at him as best I could and nodded.

“Are you in pain?” James continued. “Are your bandages loose?”

I couldn’t properly turn my head to look at him without burning, but I nodded and raised my hand and held two fingers up spaced apart. “Just a little bit,” it said.

“Lenn, why did you leave?” Ian asked me with sudden worry. “You could have hurt yourself! I thought you couldn’t walk without crutches. You didn’t crawl, did you?”

I shook my head, and pointed down towards the floor.

“Huh?”

“I think he wants you to put him down,” James said.

“Why doesn’t he talk?” Ian’s mother asked. “Does he understand English?”

“He does,” James said. “But he received an injury that took his voice. Possibly a laryngeal displacement. That’s what the bandages are for, although if he were human-sized, we would certainly have taken him to the hospital for surgery. Since he looks to be breathing fine and not coughing up anything, perhaps he’ll be able to heal on his own.”

“How awful,” she said. “Poor dear… Where is his shirt? Or his shoes?”

“I believe Ian found him without any.”

“Yeah. He was really cold. He’s still really cold. Aren’t you?”

I shrugged, and pointed down to the floor again. Ian followed my instructions, placing me down. Instead of sitting down, I exited his hands by standing on my strong leg. Then, I demonstrated what I could do. With a captive audience, I walked a second at a time, a strong step forwards on my right, and timid step on my left. It only took me a moment to reach the island, upon which I leaned and turned around.

Ian’s face was pure surprise. James was all smiles.

“Well look at you,” he said. “Whatever sickness you had as a child sure hasn’t stopped you, has it? Maybe we were being too careful with you after all.”

I shrugged, carefully bending my left leg as far as I could without pain. It wasn’t much, and it bent awkwardly backwards as it always did. But I didn’t care. For the second time in my life, I felt a strange amount of pride: my body was bent and slow, but it didn’t stop me from moving. But I don’t have to tell you about the first time, do I?

Ian laughed, wiping the tears from his eyes.

“Then I won’t worry about you ever again,” he said. “Just don’t disappear like that, okay? You scared me to death! I don’t ever want to step on you or anything.”

“True,” James said. “You should limit your explorations unless one of us knows where you are, yeah?”

At this question, I scrunched my face and shrugged my shoulders. In my mind, I made no promises.

“You’re really weird,” Ian said with a grin of his own.

I nodded, scratching my cheek.

“Well,” Ian’s mother said with a sigh, bending down. “I can hardly believe this… This sure is an interesting surprise! Lenn, was it? My name is Catherine, and I’m very glad you can stay with us. It looks like you and Ian are already good friends. And James is an excellent doctor, so you shouldn’t have any problem getting the treatment you need.”

“Yeah,” Ian said.

This made me smile. I’d known the ka for a day, and he had befriended me immediately. He would come to remind me of you, Aria: compassionate and unselfish. Like I once relied on you, I would come to rely on Ian. Even though I showed him I could walk and write, he never hesitated to come to my aid if I asked for it or not.

“I hoped you would say that, dear,” James said. “Like I told you, no homeless people.”

James looked down at me just in time to see me raise an eyebrow and wobble my hand, twisting it back and forth a few times.

“Oh,” he said. “Well, maybe I’m wrong.”

“Homeless or not,” Catherine said. “I’m certain that you’re ready for dinner. I think we all are.”

“Yup,” Ian said. He looked down at me. “I’ll bet it’s been a long time since you’ve had anything good to eat.”

My mood soared: that meat would be mine after all. I clasped my hands together and lifted them to my chest, begging with my eyes and a smile. At this, all the Iatvi laughed, and I did too. Without a voice to accompany it, and not without pain, but at that particular moment, I didn’t care.

“Not just yet,” James said, and my shoulders drooped. “We’ve got to check your bandages, Lenn. Get you some new ones. Don’t worry, no peroxide this time, just some neosporin and vaseline on the bandages. No sting to worry about.”

I nodded. The faster this wound healed, the less useless I would be. And maybe I’d get my voice back someday soon.

James was right; changing my bandages this time was not nearly as painful as the first. I sat near the edge of the bathroom counter, and James helped me remove them; what he could not remove with his large fingers I could do with my own. I couldn’t see my wounds, of course, but I could see James’s reaction to them: he pursed his lips as the bandage removed. I did see the fabric bandage from the center of my neck, a mess of cotton, white Lidocaine, and thick splatters of blood.

“Can you turn your head? Careful now, let’s not reopen anything.”

I did so, and the deepest part of my wound (the part that had taken my voice) felt ready to split. He removed the bandage from my upper neck and just below my ear. The bandage stuck for a moment beneath my jaw, and shocked me like an ant sting.

“Can you lift up, look up at the corner? Just as high as you can without pain.”

I tried, but it felt as if the wound were pulling apart.

With his glasses halfway down his nose, James examined me, his eyes intense.

“I guess it’s too early to tell,” he said, taking the bandages and throwing them in the garbage beside the toilet. “Inflammation has started, which is a good sign. No discharge that I can see. You don’t feel sick or nauseous at all? No fever?”

I shook my head.

“Does it itch?”

I nodded.

“Try not to scratch. From what I can see, it looks good so far.”

The neosporin froze me, as did the vaseline, but soon warmth returned with thick fabric bandages. On top of the bandages, James cut out pieces of plastic adhesive strips, and with his guidance, I placed them where they needed to go to keep the bandages secure.

“Excellent,” James said, patting my knee. “I can tell that you have a lot of willpower. If I had an injury like this, I’d be crying on a hospital bed like a baby.”

I wanted to tell him I already had, but I shrugged instead.

“Ian?” James called.

“Yeah?”

“Lenn’s all done. You can take him to the kitchen table, I’m sure he’s starving.”

“Okay,” he said. The boy appeared as his father turned on the faucet to wash his hands.

Ian took me in his arms and carried me to the dining room table. He placed me down, and I sat as comfortably as I could on its solid wooden surface. His hand held onto my wrist and arm for a moment, as if he expected me to fall backwards. When he saw I did not, he released me and brushed his hair away from his eyes.

Although connected to the large kitchen, the dining room was cozy: besides the metal chairs and the table, there was only one piece of furniture. Against the furthest corner next to dark glass windows was a great display cabinet filled with fine china, glass and ceramic figurines, and other knick-knacks that none of my people would ever dare touch. Memorable objects of that nature, no matter how valuable or useful they might look, were the first things that would be noticed as missing, leading to strife in the home as to who stole or hid it; all in all, more chaos in a Iatvi home was bad for gathering, or so I was told.

Upon the wall next to the cabinet was a painting that dwarfed me in both width and height. Within its dobs of thick paint was an image of a pleasant seascape, something that I had only read about. Endless water as far as the eye could see… Considering the luck I’d had in a rushing river, the idea of floating in something as big as the sea made my eyes cross. I had only painted a few times in my life, whenever the gatherers remembered to scavenge for ink and oils.

The longer I looked at the painting, the more it caught my attention. Ian watched his parents as I looked upon the canvas. Indeed, it wasn’t a mere flat surface. It truly was the work of some brilliant artist who utilized more colors than I had ever had access to at the village. I could imagine how bright your face would glow if you could have had paints like this. The painting didn’t merely show a blank featureless blue ocean; there were sailboats and trawlers, boats with thick smoke stacks bellowing gray into the stormy day, and beautiful white stone piers and buildings lifting up the composition.

Ian’s hand rested beside me, and I tapped his finger.

“What’s up?”

I pointed.

“The wall?” Ian asked. “Oh, the painting? You want to see it?”

I nodded.

With much more care, Ian lifted me into his arms and stood in front of the work of art. While his shadow mostly blocked the light that fell upon it, I was fortunate enough that he held me within arm’s reach. Gently, I touched its surface; indeed, the paint used to create it was thick, applied with powerful brush strokes. Looking at it closely (as is the case with all paintings), the colors seemed random and mishmashed. But the totality of the piece brought everything together.

“You like it?” Ian asked me. “One of Dad’s friends painted this for us. It’s an oil painting.”

“Early 1900’s,” James said from the kitchen. “One hundred years ago, a port in the Mediterranean might have looked just like that.”

I nodded, looking back at the painting. ‘Mediterranean’. I don’t know if you remember that word from the geography magazines. It’s a body of water as large as an ocean on the other side of the world, somewhere I would never even hope to go. If the gatherers only knew just how large this world was; I’ve studied countless maps, and I still don’t comprehend it. The size of the Iatvi, their endless numbers, and their countless towns and cities doesn’t help to put things into perspective, either. Yul, the floor space of Ian’s own room dwarfed the size of the village twice over.

“Do you know where that is?” Ian asked, curious. “The Mediterranean?”

I nodded, looking up at the boy’s face.

He frowned.

“You do? How?”

I pursed my lips. Then, I repeated my motion for something to write with.

“Oh, yeah. I’ll go grab them. Wait right here.”

Ian placed me down upon the table and stepped away towards his room. The feeling of being completely exposed hit me rather mercilessly again, but James and Catherine tended to their food preparation and didn’t pay me much attention. Ian reappeared quickly. He handed me the pad of sticky green papers and a larger piece of graphite than before.

“How do you know about the Mediterranean? You haven’t gone there, have you?”

I put pencil to paper, large as I could write, and handed him the note. He read it.

“Really?” he asked in surprise.

“What did he say?” James asked from across the room.

“He says he’s a… teacher?”

I scribbled on another piece of paper. Again, there wasn’t a whole lot of room to explain.

I handed him the new note.

“‘I teach kids how to speak and read English’, he says.”

“That’s wonderful,” Catherine said. “Good for you!”

“So you’re an English teacher?” Ian said. “Ew. That doesn’t seem fun.”

I laughed without pushing breath too hard, and wrote another note. Ian read it, and smiled.

“Cool.”

“What’s it say?”

“He says he couldn’t write or read if it wasn’t for his friend.” He looked down at me with a subtle tone. “Is this your friend you wrote about before? What was his name again?”

I wrote.

“Oh. Her name. Aria.”

I wrote again.

“He says she was the best teacher he ever had. How old were you when you learned to read?”

I held up my fingers.

“Cool.”

“How old?” James asked.

“Seven.”

“Well, that’s not too much later than us,” Catherine said.

Ian then lowered his eyes to look directly at mine; perhaps two arm lengths away, I leaned backwards a little bit and gave him a concerned look. I could feel his breath skip across the table, and noticed all the small freckles on his nose and cheeks. I couldn’t tell what he was searching for from the expression on his face.

“How old are you?” he finally asked me.

I blinked a few times. Gathering my senses, I wrote a quick note and handed it to him.

“Huh-uh,” he said with a shake of his head and a small smile. “I asked you first.”

I pretended to roll my eyes, which made him giggle a little. I held up two fingers in one hand and shaped an ‘O’ in my other.

Ian frowned.

“…two plus zero? You’re two?”

This time, I rolled my eyes authentically and mouthed the word ‘no’.

“Oh,” Ian laughed. He lifted up his fingers like mine. “Um, so you’re twenty?”

I nodded.

“You don’t look like twenty.”

I pursed my lips and raised an eyebrow. I wrote a note.

“You can’t grow a beard?” he said cheerfully.

James brought a blue plate as wide as I was tall to the table. Upon it was a rectangle of pure butter that could have helped feed a team of gatherers for a week. “Well, I’ve got a baby face, so my patients always think I’m still in my thirties. How long have you been a teacher?”

To my surprise, Ian’s hand strapped horizontally around my waist and legs, and rotated me to face his dad. The pad of paper almost fell from my lap, and it made me a bit dizzy.

“Ian, be careful with him,” James said quickly. “Don’t do things like that without permission.”

All of a sudden, I felt an immense presence of warmth to my right side. I looked as best I could, and I saw the enormity of Ian’s soft face hovering right next to me, his eyes peering sideways towards me.

“Sorry,” he said, his whispering voice booming in my ear.

You’d think I was crazy, but I lifted my arm and blindly reached behind me. I didn’t know what my hand met with right away, but the round shape and elasticity told me what it was. I probably kept my hand there for a moment too long.

“Hey,” he said, his hand suddenly appearing beside me. “That’s my nose.”

I smiled despite my apprehension. The smile faded and my eyes squeezed shut when a finger thicker than my thigh blinded me and gently bopped me in the face. I’m sure he intended my nose, but it ended up covering much more than that.

“Ian…” James growled.

When I waved my hand as if to push him away, he laughed and his face disappeared.

“James, can you come help me lift this?” Catherine asked from the kitchen.

“So how long have you been a teacher, Lenn?” James asked, rising and stepping towards his wife. “A couple years?”

I counted in my head all the time I’d spent in that sheet metal shack, attempting to clear my throat again. It came out as a gurgle, and the discomfort made me grimace. I placed my graphite down in my lap and held up all fingers.

“Ten years?” James asked. “Wow, probably since you mastered reading and writing yourself. That’s impressive.”

My eyebrows flashed upwards. It was certainly the first time I’d ever heard anyone describe my work as ‘impressive’. Let’s be honest, Aria: although you tried to convince me otherwise many times, everyone in the village simply tolerated my profession until I taught their kids to count and spell their names in English. I was just lucky there were so many kids. Everything else, from studying newspaper and magazine clippings to writing instruction books for gathering, these were just hobbies. No one took them seriously.

“What about your friend?” James asked, returning to the kitchen but continuing to speak. “Did she work with you?”

Complicated question, don’t you think? I wrote down an honest answer and handed it to Ian.

“Yes and no? What’s that mean?”

I couldn’t move my head to face the boy, but I shrugged and wrote more, handing him the note over my shoulder.

“‘She helped teach the kids some days. But the gatherers hated me.’”

I looked down at the table surface.

“You said that your family abandoned you,” Ian said. “How come? Just because of your leg?”

“Ian… Lenn, you don’t have to explain anything.”

“But that’s what he said.”

I wrote.

“He says he couldn’t gather, he couldn’t hunt, and he could hardly garden. What’s ‘gather’ mean?”

“Search for food, medicine, supplies, no doubt,” James said. When he saw me nod, he continued. “Can you imagine? A whole group of people like Lenn living beneath us and living off our scraps…”

I hesitated. But what I wanted to say was an honest truth. I wrote another note.

“He says that…” Ian paused. “…my people got rid of the dead weight.”

All Iatvi paused and looked in my direction.

“Dead weight?” Ian asked, his face leaning in close again. “They meant you? Are you serious?”

“You poor boy,” Catherine said. “How could they do something like that?”

I wrote again, and everyone waited for my response. I passed the note to Ian.

“The gatherers finally had an excuse to do it?”

“Oh!” exclaimed Catherine. “That’s terrible!”

“I should very much like to meet these gatherers of yours someday,” James said. “I would never abandon Ian for anything.”

I wrote a quick note.

“He says to them, it’s survival.”

“Don’t you think like that, Lenn,” James said, grabbing a pile of heavy plates from the cupboard above the counter. “That’s not fair to you. Like you said, it’s an excuse. They may have thought it was survival, but it wasn’t for you. But look where you are now. I don’t know about them, but you’re going to make it just fine.”

I looked away. Yes, the only reason I lived was because of the Iatvi that surrounded me. I had to break the only rule our people clung to in order to survive. At that time, I didn’t know what you would think about that. I thought so little of myself, despite the occasional tiny victory, that I believed the lies I’d heard for years. But I know that you would want me to do everything in my power to come back to you. I know that now.

“You’re not ‘dead weight’ to me,” Ian said to me next, his voice close. ”You’re awesome.”

I wasn’t sure about the second part. But I more than appreciated the first. I gave him a weak thumbs up that slumped to my side too quickly. To my shock, Ian’s whole fist slammed against the table beside me (at least it trembled the table like a slam), giving me a humongous thumbs up in return.

“Well,” said Catherine, carrying an enormous ceramic plate. “No more depressing talk. It’s time to eat and be happy. Right?”

“Right!” Ian said.

James placed down the plates and Catherine put down the… the…

My mind melted like the butter in the center of the table: I saw the reality of what I was about to experience. About half my standing height in thickness and a full arm’s span in width was the largest single piece of meat I had ever seen. You and I have had what Iatvi call hamburger before. This looked nothing like it, and smelled much different. You and I have added salt, or sugar, or sometimes even vinegar to food. Whatever spices were cooked into this slab of carnivorous goodness created a scent celebration that overwhelmed me. It wasn’t just because I was starving, either. I had this meal many times, and it never ever lost its appeal. So lost in the sight of the mouth-watering meat, I didn’t even see the cooked carrots, potatoes, and the strange green stalks that lined the plate. There was even bread on a separate plate next to it.

Catherine and James noticed my mind-twisted expression and laughed to each other.

“I think he’s going to enjoy this,” James said.

I shook out of my daze and looked up at Ian’s parents with a coy half-smile.

“Oh,” James said, returning to the kitchen. “We’ve been talking so much, I didn’t think of what Lenn would use as a fork.”

“Ian, would you grab a small plate for him?” Catherine asked.

“Yeah.”

“Let’s see,” James said, opening the cupboard between the oven and the fridge. “We have plastic forks, but I don’t know if… Lenn, what do you usually use to eat?”

I wrote a quick note and handed it to Ian after he placed before me a wide ceramic plate (not half as wide as the others).

“A plastic fork works fine, he says.”

“You’re sure?”

I nodded.

“Yeah, he’s sure.”

James returned and handed me the fork; about the size of a pronged rake, I held it near the neck and held the upper plastic over my bandaged shoulder. Fortunate that it didn’t weigh much at all.

With everyone seated at the table, I thought for sure everyone would proceed to dig into the delicious food. But to my surprise, everyone paused. James pointed at Ian.

“Want to say a quick prayer?”

“Sure,” Ian said.

All of the Iatvi then bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and folded their arms. In that moment, my eyes bounced from person to person, my anxiety level soared, and I clung to my fork; I had no idea what they were doing. Ian then spoke words that I had never heard combined before, a title for a being that I had never known.

“Our Heavenly Father…”

Ian continued speaking, but I clung to those first words. I’d learned many words before. But my insignificant knowledge gathered from scraps of paper had never taught me of this person. “Heavenly’. Like many words, I only knew of ‘heaven’ as an idea: a bright place where Iatvi go when they die. Advertisements described things like ice cream as ‘heavenly’, but I wasn’t so sure Iatvi died just to go to a place filled with ice cream.

And then, of course, the word ‘father’. The only example of a father I knew was my own. Yours as well, of course, but he was “kinder” than mine. You know how rare it was to see him home… or even in the village at all. He spent more time drinking the alcohol that the gatherers brought back than drinking water, and it never ceased to amaze me that he bothered to have more children besides me in his older years. Or maybe it was my mother who convinced him, I don’t know. I didn’t count as one, after all.

So who was this father that Ian called ‘heavenly’? It couldn’t have been like my father. There was nothing heavenly about alcohol or abandoning your son to die. Was this Father like James? Kind and loving, someone who actually cared for his son? I didn’t recognize it then, but I felt a sense of warmth in me. If it wasn’t like James, then it must have been someone very similar. Someone who had taught Ian to care about someone like me. I would later learn that Aaron and Chris also believed in this ‘Heavenly Father’.

I can hear you giggling at me now; you always told me I think too much. But you know me: when I do nothing, I think. And looking back, I know there were so many things I didn’t pay attention to; it was all so… immense. But this was certainly something I latched onto. And I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating, but in this moment of fear, combined with exhaustion and hunger… Hearing this title from Ian, ‘Heavenly Father’, I knew these words matched together. I wish that the gatherers had ever gathered scraps of scriptures as greedily as they did newspaper with obituaries and ads with scented perfumes.

As the Iatvi lifted their eyes, I looked down at the table and hoped none of them would then ask me to ‘pray’, or say anything about what had just occurred. When they did not, and a voice asked me what I wanted to eat first, I looked up and continued with life.

The feeling did not leave, though. It didn’t leave me for the entire night.

I Am Lenn – Chapter Two

The very next sensation I felt was the contemplation of a very strong smell. In fact, a collection of smells all wrapped into one. They weren’t individually unpleasant. Together, they clashed. One was an acidic cleaning solution. Another was the kind of odor that every individual has that identifies them; do you remember when you told me mine was like colored ink? Yeah, I never could help having that smell. But this one was thick, the smell of an Iatvi child and something sweet, like strawberry seeds. A third smell that filled my nose made my mouth water: some kind of flavorful cooking meat.

My eyes opened. A dim white ceiling greeted me first, made yellow by a single light source from somewhere in the room. My eyes tracked the ceiling to the far wall, upon which sat two rows of wooden shelves. On these shelves was a colorful assortment of plastic toys and books, well-used boxes with frayed corners, and plastic cases with a variety of titles. Or were they games? I knew these were different things. I could not tell you which was which. Beside the shelf was a striking framed painting of a bearded man with a delicate expression and bright green eyes; upon his shoulder was a red robe. I remember this image very clearly, as I had much time to look upon it.

I tried to lift myself to get a better view of my surroundings, but the pain kept me pinned down as assuredly as a five-pound weight. I dared not move my neck, but I again attempted to hear any sound escape my lips. When I mouthed words, I could hear the delicate wind of spoken language, but it did not have my voice, nor did it have any great volume. Then, for the first time since my injury, the inside of my throat inflamed. And appropriately so. If something about my throat had been ‘displaced’ or ‘fractured’ by whatever sharp object had sliced me, then perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to continue trying to reassemble my voice myself. I settled back into my light-blue bedding and simply stared at the ceiling.

My ears strained for sounds. Muffled voices could be heard somewhere inside the Iatvi home in which I lay, all of which were too indistinct to be recognized. Every six or seven seconds, I would hear a sharp click from somewhere behind me. This I didn’t recognize, but my fear of it lessened the more I realized that it sounded hollow and tinged like the metallic ping of a bell. When I focused on it, it hurt my hearing a bit. But it didn’t move away or towards me, so I deemed it unthreatening. Somewhere deep within the house the sound of plumbing echoed, and I knew what that meant: whenever water flowed, Iatvi weren’t far behind it. But it sounded too far away to worry about. Until, of course, I reasoned with myself that distance wasn’t a factor when all Iatvi in the house knew what I was, where I was, and my current state of health.

I’m unsure how long I laid in that strange rectangular room by myself. I mused upon the observation that Iatvi were the only beings I knew that adored ninety degree angles, and constructed their homes with only those in mind; another sign of their obsession for precision. I didn’t mind it, truth be told, but I knew many who regularly complained about its ugliness. ‘Every room is the same,’ they often said. ‘The only thing different about each room are the obstacles on the floor’. This always made me laugh. As if the gatherers only remained on the ground. Climbing was the only way to survive in an Iatvi home. Olem, climbing was the only way to survive anywhere. And hiding in the dark. If you had any trouble with these two skills, you were better off staying home and tending to your garden.

Like me.

Which I had never minded, as you know. I never was very physical. I always stayed in the village, teaching kids how to read and write, and enjoying the scraps of paper the gatherers would bring home for study… when I begged them to do so. I wondered if I would ever get to do that again. Or, if I would even live in any village again.

A sound. The click of a closing door. Footsteps. They distanced themselves from my hearing, but then reappeared as deep thumping upon hardwood approaching. I could not move. Every instinct I had told me to do so, but the pain grew unbearably intense as I attempted to rise. I relaxed, and the pain dulled. But enduring pain felt like an excuse when Death was approaching with alarming speed.

And then it did appear, as a great door suddenly clicked open directly behind my head. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep, which by itself filled me with more dread: if the blackness of wicked Death was in the room and came for me, I’d never see it coming. Great footsteps muffled by the sound of carpet entered, closing the door behind them. I heard the sound of a quiet sigh, and within three seconds, felt the brush of stirred air as something very large strode past me. I dared to open my eyes for just a split second, and I saw the dark-haired head of a familiar ka ignoring me and walking further into the room.

The weight of his body walking across carpet unnerved me, certainly, but I was somehow high up in the air as if on a shelf. If I had been low in crushing position, my mental state would have been considerably different.

I couldn’t see this ka named Ian once he passed from my view. But he began humming some tune, and I heard the crunch of mattress springs beneath tons of pressure. I didn’t want him to find me awake. But I preferred he didn’t fall asleep and leave me in constant anxiety for two or three hours either. Aria, you would be so proud of me. Or shocked at my daring, perhaps both. I didn’t know if the boy would see it, but I lifted my right arm despite the pain. I waved my hand back and forth above the edge of the towel.

I felt quite foolish for a moment; I was waving down a behemoth. But it soon had its intended effect.

“Oh!” said a quiet voice.

The mattress springs complained again as the giant rose to his feet, and deep footsteps brought the Iatvi into view. He hadn’t changed in appearance, although I didn’t quite know why I expected him to change. Maybe my imagination had turned him into a hideous form as I slept. In the dim yellow light that shone from behind him, Ian’s form was shadowed but not over much. I could still see his round pointed chin, bright green eyes, and messy hair that grew past his ears. I could only see his face and part of his shoulders, so I knew I must have been quite high off the floor.

“Hi,” he said to me.

I offered a small wave in reply, blinking to make sure this boy was truly looking down upon me and not someone else.

“How are you feeling? Are you in pain?”

I shrugged my shoulders, which made me wince.

“I’m sorry. I wish I could give you medicine to help, but… Dad isn’t sure how much we could give you. Do the bandages help?”

I nodded.

“Um… Do you need anything, little guy?”

Again, I lifted a cupped hand to my mouth. Recognition lit up his face.

“Oh yeah, I forgot! Wait right here.”

Not that I had much choice. Just as abruptly as he had entered the room, he stepped out, opening his door with a click but not closing it behind him. I heard the footsteps travel a short distance, a door opening, a drawer pulled, and water poured out of a faucet. Ten seconds later, the ka returned, closing his door and coming back into my view.

“Here you go,” said Ian, holding out a large plastic tube to me. “It’s the eyedropper. Drink from this.”

Ian brought the plastic to my mouth, and my lips immediately met with moisture. I inhaled the first enormous drop; I hadn’t had a clean drink of water in two days, minus sickening river water which I had thrown up. A second drop emerged, and I lapped it up with the same voracity. A third, fourth, and fifth drop formed, and I took my time, allowing my desire for water to satisfy. I laid my head backwards as a sixth drop formed, which caught me off-guard thinking it would spill across my chest. But Ian watched the procedure closely, and the drop withdrew back into the plastic.

“Is that all?” Ian asked. “Do you want more?”

I raised a finger up.

“One more?”

I pushed my hand forwards a few times.

“Oh. I’ll wait. Sorry.”

So much ‘dev’ from this boy. Perhaps I wasn’t an animal to him after all. Once I regained my composure and felt there was room in my stomach for more, I waved at him.

“More? Okay.”

The plastic lowered and produced a droplet, which I sucked up with gratitude. I did the same with the second, the third, and the fourth. I then raised my hand to make the water stop. Now, I thought to myself, what do Iatvi do? I lifted my hand, formed a fist, but left my thumb extended. Foreign to me, but very satisfying to Ian.

“Yay,” he said. “That’s great. Is there anything else I can do? Are you cold? Hot? Lift up your arm.”

I did so, and the boy took it in his fingers.

“Hmm. What about here?”

He confirmed it by feeling my stomach with his forefinger (I lost a bit of air as he pressed down), and then lightly squeezed my bare feet. It was then I knew for sure that I had lost my ratty shoes. I didn’t much care anymore; they had offered very little protection anyway. I was just grateful I still wore any article of clothing at all.

“Yeah, you’re cold. Do you want me to get you another towel?”

My hand waved a negative and fell back down to my side. Despite my dizziness and bare body, I was fairly comfortable.

“You’re sure?”

I nodded.

“Um, let’s see…” he whispered, lowering his eyes to my level. I turned my head as best I could, and finally saw the light of his eyes beneath his dark pencil-thin eyebrows. I’m not going to lie… it was slightly horrifying. “Dad says to make sure your patient stays comfortable. And he said that sometimes a distraction can help lessen pain. If you want, you can watch a movie on my TV. And I can watch with you to make sure you’re okay.”

Again, I knew what a movie was, if only because of the word. The thought that this Iatvi would actually turn one on for me to watch amazed me. My eyes grew wide, and I gave him a halfway shrug. At least, until my slow mind comprehended what the boy was offering me. I quickly nodded to override my shrug.

“Yeah? Cool. Uh, hang on, let’s see how I can do this…”

Ian looked around his room for a moment, and then stepped outside again. His thundering footsteps grew quiet, then I heard him faintly shout to someone. For a moment, everything was silent. Then, a door closed very far away, and Ian’s footsteps boomed towards me until he entered the room and shut his door behind him again. He passed me by, and then sounded as if assembling something wooden and metallic. I had no idea what to make of it, so I remained still.

Ian appeared into my view.

“Here you go, I got you a chair,” he said. “You’ll have the best seat in the house. It’ll be like sitting in your own theater.”

I only knew of ‘theaters’ by the word. But if it had anything to do with movies, they must have been fantastic places to visit. I nodded, not fully understanding but remaining hopeful.

“Okay, here you go,” Ian said, his gigantic hands appearing above me. One hand descended beneath my right side, and the other crossed over me beneath my left. Suddenly, I was airborne, descending into a deep unfamiliar room… until me and my towel bedding came to rest upon a flat surface. It certainly felt more comfortable to be seated upwards. I looked up as Ian’s hands disappeared, and I witnessed the largest and darkest rectangle in the world. I had never seen a television before.

To my surprise, the descent wasn’t what frightened me: it was the giant that towered over me that drew my horrified gaze. Dressed in a plain gray tank top and athletic shorts, I could see from his knees all the way up to his head. It was like looking through some strange mirror or frame that elongated this child, making him appear as tall as a building. But no. In reality, I was lying prone, completely under the control of this very real Iatvi boy.

But contrary to any tale I had ever heard about the Iatvi, this boy named Ian didn’t pose a threat to me. His size did, sure. But his demeanor did not.

For a moment, Ian crossed in front of me and took some device in his hand. A pair of bright blue words flashed upon the black screen as the television turned on. It made no sound, but an illustration of a television crossed back and forth across the screen in random directions telling us both that the device was active.

“Okay,” Ian said, stepping towards the shelves that hung from the wall. “I’ve got a couple of movies. Star Wars? Lord of the Rings? Maybe a Disney movie?”

I had no idea what any of those words meant. I almost shrugged again, but then an idea emerged in my mind: I had a very important question to ask, and I had come to the realization that there was only one way to ask it. I raised my hand to stop the boy. Before he could ask why, I pressed my fingers together and wobbled them back and forth against the palm of my opposite hand. I watched Ian’s face for any sign that he understood.

Ian cocked his head to the side.

“You want to… write something?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Oh!” The boy snapped his fingers. “You can’t speak, but you can write! Why didn’t I think of that? Hang on, what can I use…?”

Ian stepped away from my view, and the sounds I heard resembled rummaging through a filled drawer. He spoke to himself in the meantime.

“No, not a pen… Too big. Pencil’s too big, too. Marker? Nah, they’re all dry. Crayon? Oh!”

Something snapped, delicate but clear. More rummaging. Then Ian reappeared standing tall, and bent down to get a better look at me.

“Here you go.”

His hand approached me, and between his fingers was a short gray stick a bit thinner than my thumb and twice as long as my hand. I recognized it immediately, as I had used them many times: it was the lead of what the Iatvi called a “mechanical” pencil. I took it gladly.

“And here, you can use these.”

With his other hand, he placed a thick pad of light-green paper that fit neatly in my lap. I’d used these as well: “sticky” notes. My family generally used them not only as writing material, but as a source of adhesive that came off easily enough with a sharp thin knife.

I began writing my question when there came a knock at Ian’s door. I panicked somewhat when Ian said: “Hi.”

I looked, and a familiar face looked in.

“Ian?” asked Ian’s father. “Is our patient awake?”

“Yep,” Ian said. “I was going to have him watch a movie, but he knows how to write.”

The Iatvi’s face brightened.

“That’s wonderful,” he said. “I’d love to join you. Is it all right if I come in?”

“Is that okay?” Ian asked me.

Despite the water I just drank, my throat ran dry. But I nodded all the same.

The Iatvi opened the door and stepped inside. To my surprise, he carried a large wooden stool in one hand. He placed it beside my chair and sat down. Ian leaned backwards and descended to sit on the floor; this, at least, made me feel a little more comfortable having him lower down.

I pressed my hand into my forehead and closed my eyes for a moment. This would have been so much easier with my voice. Slowly, I pressed the graphite to the paper, and aware that the Iatvi would likely not be able to see my regular handwriting, I struck out my first words. I then wrote the question large enough to be seen. It only took me a moment. I tore off the paper from the stack and handed it to Ian, who took it expectantly.

He squinted at the note, and for a moment, I thought I might have to rewrite it. But he spoke.

“Why would… because you were going to die.”

“What does it say?” asked his father.

Ian handed the note over.

“It says, why did you save me?”

The Iatvi above me placed a hand to his chin, and seemed to understand the intent of my question a bit better than the boy.

“Something tells me you don’t have very much experience with people… like us.”

I shook my head.

“What do you mean?” Ian asked.

“I’m not sure he trusts us. He doesn’t know us. I’ve never seen someone like him. You probably didn’t expect to be found by the boys, either. Does that sound right?”

I paused, and wondered if what I wanted to say would be appropriate. I carefully traced letters to paper, pausing for a moment when I realized that they wouldn’t be familiar with my language. I pulled the note from the stack, and hesitated on who I should hand it to. I chose to offer it to Ian’s father.

He took his glasses from his pocket and studied my writing.

“Most of my family,” he read. “…are dead because of humans.”

Ian’s eyes opened wide.

“…seriously?”

His father remained quiet, and I nodded. Everyone remained silent for a moment.

“You have every reason not to trust us, then,” said the Iatvi.

I looked away, and didn’t move.

“Your whole family?” Ian asked, pulling forwards. “How?”

“Ian,” said the father. “I don’t think that’s our right to ask.”

They looked down upon me, and saw me busily writing. Mother, Father. Little Han and Sareil. My students, your brother. I remembered all of them. What grief I had in me was spent, and I could write about them without pain. I know this was always difficult for you to understand, Aria, but you were one of the only people who really cared about me, and I didn’t care about the rest of them. Writing about them all wasn’t terribly difficult when most of them hated me when they were alive. Ironic, isn’t it? That I lived when so many others died?

I handed the note to Ian’s father.

“‘Mostly sickness,’” he read. “‘Bad water and food. Accidents. Animals.’”

I wrote another.

“‘But I don’t blame you. It’s not your fault.’”

I wrote another; there was little room to say everything.

“You’ve done more for me in one day… does it say… than my family ever did for me?”

I nodded.

“Oh, I’m sure that’s not true,” Ian’s father said.

“Yeah, all we did was pick you up out of the canal,” Ian said.

I frowned. I wrote more.

“‘You don’t know my family’.” The father shrugged. “Well… I suppose we don’t.”

“But that’s sad,” Ian said. “Were you running away from home?”

I wrote.

“They threw me out.’”

“But why?”

“Ian…”

I hesitated. They didn’t need to know the whole truth. I put pencil to paper.

“‘My leg doesn’t work well’.” The father frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You can’t walk?” Ian asked.

I wrote more.

“‘I can walk, but not quickly.’ Hmm. Do you know why this happened?”

I wrote.

“‘I was a baby. I became very sick, and my leg stopped working.’ Just one leg?”

I nodded.

“Hmm. I can see. Does your knee bend normally? Or is it a little crooked?”

I wrote: ‘very crooked’.

“Can I lift up your pant leg and take a look?”

I nodded again.

Ian’s father gently grasped my foot with one hand and lifted up my pant leg with the other. I watched his face as he examined it.

“Can you keep it lifted?”

I did my best, but my leg immediately began shaking from the strain.

“Whoa…” Ian whispered. “It looks… backwards.”

“Hmm. Atrophy, too.”

“What’s atrophy?” Ian asked, peering down at my leg along with his father.

“See the muscles of his calf? Can I lift it?”

I nodded, grateful for the relief from shaking. My mind told me to be worried, but at that point, I preferred someone remove my leg altogether and save me the trouble of hauling it around.

“See? It’s atrophied, which means the muscles have shrunk. Or never grew strong.”

‘Atrophy’. That was a new word to me. Now I could describe why my leg was ji kalok ys menn. So skinny and bent.

“It does bend the other way… May I?”

At his request, I quickly shook my head and waved my hands. I could hardly bend it myself without pain, I didn’t want a Iatvi to do so.

“Oh, understood. You’ve never injured your back or your neck? It was just from falling ill?”

I nodded.

“I don’t think it’s cerebral palsy. Maybe multiple sclerosis, but since it’s just his leg, maybe not. I wonder if it was something as simple as polio.”

“Polio?” Ian asked. “What’s polio do? Isn’t that gone?”

“You’re right, it’s nearly gone. It’s a very horrible disease that almost everyone gets immunized for these days. Before immunizations, it used to kill or paralyze thousands of children a year all over the world. You can’t cure it, you can only prevent it. Now it’s nearly eradicated from us humans, but maybe not from them. It’s possible he contracted polio as a child and became paralyzed as a result. Or, just nerve damage and hyper-extension, since he can still feel and move his leg. Right?”

I didn’t know ‘polio’, or any of the other diseases he talked about. Or hyper-whatever. But I knew the word ‘paralyzed’. My left leg wasn’t that bad, I could feel and I could limp.

“How do you move around?” Ian asked me.

Instead of writing it, I extended my arms (wincing at the pain) and ‘walked’ with them, making motions as if someone had placed sticks beneath my underarms.

Ian’s father nodded.

“Crutches,” he said. “You’re a tough one.”

I wrote two words.

“‘I guess’. It’s true.”

“Wait…” Ian said. “With the rain last night… you didn’t swim in that, did you?”

I painfully nodded.

“You can swim with just one leg? Wow.”

“You must have some very strong arms,” Ian’s father said. “Where did you get your injuries?”

“Yeah, how long were you in the water? Did something attack you?”

I held up my hands; too many questions. I wrote. Ian’s father gathered all of my notes in his fingers.

“‘I fell into the water. I hit something sharp.’”

Ian’s father nodded.

“We’re definitely going to have to keep watch on your wounds,” Ian’s father said. “Canal water is dirty stuff, but it’s worse if you hit something rusted. If you get a fever or start to feel sick in any way, you tell us.”

“But he can’t tell us.” Ian said, scratching his shoulder.

“Oh. Hmm. And it’s not easy to shout out loud on paper. Maybe we can find something he can use to make sound with. Like a bell, or something he can hit.”

“That’s a good idea. And I can hear for it if he needs anything.”

“You’ll be his personal nurse, right?”

Ian took a dramatic bow as well as he could from a seated position.

“Yes, sir. Whatever you would like, sir!”

I laughed without sound and shook my head. Though my lack of voice should have been expected by then, it wasn’t. As the two Iatvi motioned away from me to stand, I frowned and closed my eyes. I tried to growl, and to my pleasant surprise, my upper throat could still make a depressing rasping noise. At least it was something.

“Oh,” said Ian’s father, standing immense over me. “You know what? We’ve been incredibly rude.”

“Huh?” asked Ian.

“We’ve completely skipped introducing ourselves,” said the father, placing a hand on Ian’s shoulder. “I’m sure you know him by now, this is Ian. My name is James, James Petersen.”

“Oh yeah. Sorry about that!”

“Can we ask for your name?” James asked.

I nodded gratefully, and wrote one word. Ian took the page from me and read it aloud.

“‘Lenn’. Just Lenn? That’s a cool name.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lenn. When my wife gets home, I’ll introduce you to her as well. I hope we’ll be able to help you heal, I really do.”

The movie Ian picked out for me was one of the strangest things I’d ever seen. Ian called it ‘science fiction’, two words I didn’t know could be combined. Something about ‘space’, a place that looked like the night sky but up, down, and in all directions. Giant buildings of metal floated through this ‘space’ and attacked each other with shining lights. Walking machines made of gold and silver talked and beeped at one another as if they were speaking their own language, and strange creatures in hoods and glowing eyes did the same. The main characters included a blonde-haired boy from the desert, a princess dressed in white, an enormous growling animal, a clever pilot, and a bearded old man that reminded me of old Orphys; I’m sure you remember him when we used to play near the old trees. The villain of this movie was a demon dressed in black with a deep voice, who wore a frightening mask, and sounded as if a machine breathed for him. The old man and the demon fought using swords made of light. Then, airplanes flew through the sky fighting with colored lights, sparks, explosions. I hoped we would see it together someday. It’s all very exciting, and equally as confusing. I’ve watched it many times since then, and it never becomes less entertaining, but never makes any more sense.

Perhaps the most horrifying idea in the movie was that Iatvi could build a weapon so powerful, it could destroy the entire world. Something called a ‘death star’, although it looked nothing like a star; it looked like a dark-gray circle that could create a green light and make an entire world explode and vanish in less than a few seconds. This shocking event happened halfway through the movie, mind you. I waved at Ian, and quickly wrote him a note asking if any of this was real. He laughed and assured me that it was not.

The movie was absolutely incredible, and looking at the clock on the wall above the television, I could hardly believe two hours had passed. Ian stood in front of the television and removed the movie disk from the machine below.

“Do you want to watch another one, Lenn?” he asked me, placing the movie back onto its place on the shelf.

I sighed. I worried about this moment, but it had finally arrived. I wrote the note, and handed it to him.

“You have to… oh.”

I smiled, pitying myself and my new friend.

“Um… how do you normally do it?”

I wrote another note.

“‘It’s complicated.’” Ian laughed. “I guess that makes sense. Wait right here, I’ll go ask Dad.”

Yes, that was precisely what I wanted: more than one Iatvi to become involved in my bathroom issues. I remember you laughing at me when you helped me when we were young, and it didn’t make me feel any better about my situation. A stool to lean my arms against, a plastic soda cap, and a running stream with which to clean everything. Glamorous it was not, but we didn’t have anything better back then, did we? Before my arrival at the Petersen’s, life had been so chaotic I don’t think I had dedicated time for a break in three days, maybe four.

After a few moments, Ian and James stepped into the room with concerned faces.

“Well, this is a predicament,” James said. “If you had legs to stand on, it would be a different story, huh?”

I quickly wrote a note as my face turned red and handed it to James. He read it.

“No, don’t apologize. We’ve all got to do it. This is all part of the learning experience. You’re our patient, and doctors take care of their patients no matter their difficulties. If Ian’s going to be a doctor someday, he’s got to start somewhere. Right?”

“Right,” he said. “So, what do we do?”

I had no good ideas, besides the thought of making a mess and a total embarrassment of myself. I’m not above that, of course, but I like to avoid it when I can. I listened to them discussing my fate.

“Lifting him up under his arms is not a good plan,” James said. “We don’t want to do more damage to his wounds. Maybe if we had something like a bedpan.”

“A bedpan, yeah,” Ian said. “What if… Do we have any cups or bowls?”

“Not that would be very comfortable for him.”

“What if I just held him up? By his waist? Over the sink, or the toilet?”

I wrote a note faster than I ever had, making both Iatvi pause.

“‘Please no.’ Well, that answers that.”

“Hmm…” Ian hummed, folding his arms and looking at the floor. “Hey Dad, what about your little plastic pill cups? From your work?”

“Might be too small.”

“What about… a spoon?”

James laughed.

“Too shallow. Besides, your mom certainly won’t like that.”

“Well, what else do we have? How about a ladle?”

James shrugged his shoulders in agreement.

“Catherine will like that even less. But I suppose it would be deep enough. The edge might still be a bit painful on his legs, but I guess it’s the best we’ve got right now. Tonight after your mom gets home I’ll go shopping. Maybe a child’s bedpan will work, if I can find one.”

“Does that sound good, Lenn?”

I swallowed hard, and attempted to clear my throat; it sounded like a violent gurgle, and hurt intensely. ‘Reluctant’ was a good word for the situation, but it was better than nothing, and things were becoming dire. So I nodded.

The procedure actually resembled what I had to do at the village, except the bucket was a stainless steel ladle with a basin that could have seated my whole body. I’m sure it was all a sight to see, and I’m not sure if I were more ashamed for myself or for the ka that was helping me. No wonder my family had abandoned me; even simple bathroom breaks took me a good half an hour.

I wrote a note to Ian that I would need something to lean my hands against as I went, and that clever boy came back with a flat wooden stick perfect for the job. I had no idea where he produced it, but it turns out that solving problems for someone of my size and difficulties was one of Ian’s specialties. He took me to their bathroom, an expansive chamber filled with bright light and a mirror as wide as the room, off-white tile walls up to Ian’s shoulders, a glass shower, and a white lake-sized bathtub beside it.

He placed my bedding on the counter. Then, he placed the wood in the middle of the ladle basin and held it there tightly while simultaneously keeping the ladle centered and balanced. With his other hand, and with my permission, he grasped my whole body with his hand about my waist and lifted me into position. My bottom aimed downwards, my hands on the wood kept me upright, and my legs dangled uselessly over the edge of the ladle. I was practiced enough to proceed without further assistance, and I’m sure you can guess the rest.

Sorry if my description of all of this seems inappropriate. But I want you to understand the extraordinary kindness these Iatvi showed to me on the very first day under their care. I’m sure you know what I mean, knowing my mother. She never cared to teach me anything, and took no notice when I learned how to live life without any help. And you know my father, always out with the gatherers and keeping his head down while at home. I suppose I don’t blame him. I did the same thing, until I was old enough to not remain at home. After all, you know how much time I spent at the school and the garden. By the time Han and Sareil were born, I had fallen so far from my parent’s good graces that my position as a teacher at the school was the only thing keeping me fed.

Ian surprised me, though: he locked the bathroom door for privacy and turned away from me as I did my business. With my voice gone, anything could have happened; falling in, for instance. Wouldn’t that have been thrilling? But nothing happened, and life carried on.

One important thing I must mention: having a near infinite supply of toilet paper available at any time of the day is a luxury I wish all of our people could experience. Laugh at me all you want. It’s still the best thing ever.

Memoir #2 – The New Face of West Virginia, October 23rd, 2102


I remembered something called the “sky”. As dimly as the lights in the vault. As dimly as I remembered writing my name on paper for the first time, a big blue ceiling with a bright lightbulb during the day, an endless sea of stars at night. In the exit presentation, Vault Boy reminded us not to stare at the sun or risk permanent blindness. Sure, I thought. Looking right at a lightbulb is kinda dumb. When that great vault door opened, sunlight streamed into the suffocating steel-and-concrete room like an endless flood. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Instinctively, I dug into my tool bag strapped around my shoulder to grab my welder’s goggles. Though tinted green through the lenses, I knew I stared into a wall of pure white.

Everyone around me hugged their loved ones or held hands tightly. Some tears were shed. Some prepared to exit the vault with the solemnity of a funeral march. No matter their individual feelings, one thing was emphatically certain: Vault 76 was closed for business, and all the Mr. Handys cheered us on to remind everyone of the fact. Every single dweller crowded inside the atrium cheered as the machinery pulled the gigantic cog aside. With the door open, the air was sheer electricity. 

Liz and Liam came to stand by me as the metal catwalk extended. I noticed (as much as I could with welding goggles on) that they both holstered weapons. Liz, a custom-machined six-shooter, and Liam, a brand-new automatic AER9 laser rifle. With my baseball bat tied to my backpack, I suddenly felt very naked. Liam also had a walking stick of sorts, a surprisingly well-kept wooden cane that I’d never seen before.

“Whoa. Liam, that’s a real nice-”

I then felt my goggles fly off my head.

“Don’t be a pansy,” Liam growled, handing me back my eyewear by shoving it against my chest. “The sooner you get used to sunlight, the better.”

“You even remember what the sun feels like?” Liz asked me.

“Sorta,” I mumbled.

Vault staff busily prepared individual teams and approved travel destinations while we stood behind the expectant crowd, so we had some time to examine our new equipment.

The heaviest by far was our C.A.M.P. units. We had been instructed in their use in bimonthly meetings, but to finally have one of my own felt incredibly satisfying. The size of a piece of luggage, I deployed it for just a moment to check out its functionality. A workbench all its own, the C.A.M.P. came with a rotary tool, a small inlaid table saw, a lathe, and a drill press. With a display screen much like my Pip-Boy, the C.A.M.P. came pre-programmed with schematics for machining everything from tools and basic electronics to laboratory equipment and everyday appliances. There were even instructions on how to make stuffed animals. 

I noticed one in particular and chuckled; what kind of deal did Vault-Tec have with Radiation King to include detailed instructions on how to repair and replicate their televisions and refrigerators? Or Nuka-Cola with instructions to build their vending machines? I found the thought of a vault filled with company executives just waiting to retake their brands in the nuclear wasteland entertaining.

“What do you think of these perk cards?” Liz asked, flipping through the multi-colored and laminated packets. Wrapped in crisp cellophane, these “cards” measured about four by six inches; some were thin while others were thick enough to be books. Thinking back, of course Vault-Tec would call them “perk cards” — let’s make post-war life collectable! Regardless, each showed Vault Boy performing many different activities. Shooting rifles, mending armor, hauling heavy loads, haggling with merchants. Liz opened one titled “Home Defense” and discovered these cards were, in fact, compact instructional manuals that detailed how to develop the specific skills depicted on the cover. “Wow. Look, there’s codes for our C.A.M.Ps to build military turrets. Biometric sensors. 5.56 and AER9, everything. Missile launchers even? Now that’s living.”

Liam peered over Liz’s arm to look, remaining silent but appearing interested.

I thumbed through my own cards and came across one that looked simple enough to start with: “Inspirational”. I unwrapped the plastic and opened the front cover. From its own description: “Travelling alone in the wilderness? No longer! Become a stalwart leader and ‘inspire’ your group of fellow survivors towards a better tomorrow!” The perk card described ways to rely on your companions as well as boost their morale and talents in times of need. “Feel a boost of confidence and discover all new experiences,” it said. “Learn from your companions as they learn from you! In no time, you’ll be ready to take on even greater challenges. The future is in your hands!”

I shrugged. Might as well start with that. If the little “perk card” could teach me how to learn from Liam and Liz’s skills, I’d take that advice any day.

At last, the crowd began to move forwards, and our fellow vault dwellers stepped into the outside world for the first time in twenty-five years. Liam showed our route to the overseer’s assistant, and I passed him to walk into the warm rays of the sun. Like stepping in front of a gentle radiator, I did exactly what Vault Boy instructed me not to do: I looked upwards at the sun. Now filled with radiation, I stopped and waited for the red mass in my sight to fade. Liz laughed and patted my shoulder. Leading me forwards, I soon saw the most glorious image I had ever seen before: the whole of Appalachia. Maple trees whose red and orange leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze, the baby-blue sky that went on and on, and distant rain clouds creating a veil of grey some miles south. In the distance I could see the colossal digging machines that once excavated Mount Blair. I’d never imagined the great Appalachian mountain range and West Virginia’s forests would be so beautiful. I’d seen such sights in the holovids, sure, but nothing compared to seeing it in person.

Now no longer completely blind, I realized the first hint of the world I’d stepped into: the railing upon which I laid my hands flaked with red-iron stains, leaving rust on my fingers. The mighty billboard some meters to my right stood, but only barely, as the metal struts had deteriorated greatly. I looked around me, and saw stone benches chipped, broken, and storm weathered. The poles that once gave light were entirely rusted and useless, their bulbs shattered. Even the hills surrounding the plaza had collapsed, covering the concrete floor in rocks and piles of soil-wash.

All the now-previous inhabitants of Vault 76 grouped together and gazed in awe of the outside world. Just as before, some trembled at the cool autumn air, some celebrated, and some were already breaking off and heading west. As I saw them depart, I lifted up my Pip-Boy to my view and checked out the Geiger counter and health screen. I half-expected to be glowing within half an hour, but I heard no clicking, and Vault Boy was as happy as I’d ever seen him.

“So this is what we have to work with,” Liz said, doing the very same thing with her Pip-Boy. She lowered it and looked outwards to the horizon.  “Huh. I expected worse.”

“We haven’t seen anything yet,” Liam said, joining us with his regular step-clank limp. “Sure, it looks pretty, but I’m more worried about what lives out there.”

“That’s what we have you for, Peters.”

“And that’s what I have you for, Liz,” Liam said emphatically. “And you, Greg. I’ll have your back, and I expect you both to have mine.”

“You bet. We’re a crew, right?” I said.

Liz laughed.

“Right,” she said with a grin. “We got a name for this crew of ours? Oughta make it official.”

Liam rolled his eyes.

“If that’s the kind of crew I’m in, I’ll go back inside and leave you to it.”

“Come on, Liam, don’t be a bulkhead, ” I said. “Hey, what about the Bulkheads?”

“Nah, you’ll make us sound stupid. Hmm. How about the 76ers?”“I’m pretty sure that’s the name of a baseball team.”

“And I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of the 46ers. Austin, Texas, I think.”

“Ah, whatever. Besides, we wouldn’t stand out from all the others. How about the Operators? Like, operating heavy machinery?”

“You’re gonna make us sound all mafia-like. Don’t you remember ‘Dully Williams and the Gangsters of Villa Nueva’? Like we’re ‘operating’ a laundering scheme or something.”

“Oh yeah. Forgot about that vid. I liked that one.”

“Oh hell, you two,” Liam said, taking a step away from us cane-first. “We’re burning daylight. Talk about your dumb little names on the road.”

We headed towards the stairs that led east when we began hearing screaming. Over the railing, I saw the lower plaza level (where the Mr. Handy named Pennington had set up happy yellow-and-blue balloons) and quickly recognized the cause: a rotting corpse of a man lay at the stairs besides the enthusiastic robot. One vaulter, Julian Colter, I believe, held people back from the body as the groups continued to the dirt path down the stairs.

“Poor bastard,” Liam said, looking below with me. “Probably looking for safety in the vault.”

“But there’s no way he died twenty-five years ago.”

“Nah, he’s probably a survivor what got his ass handed to him by someone else with a gun,” Liz said. “Or sickness, maybe. The meetings always said critters would turn into radioactive monsters, but I don’t know if I believe it. Rabid, sure, but full of rads?”

“Come on, people, keep it moving,” Colter said, waving my fellow vaulters on. When one older woman expressed pity, he added: “Don’t worry, our group will come back and bury the poor fellow. Keep moving.”

When it was our turn to pass, I got a good look at him. Wearing ratty clothing, the man’s skin had turned a bluish-green, what remained of his hair matted beneath a red leather cap. His smell caught my nostrils as I passed, and I nearly gagged. Fortunately, it’s a smell I would soon become very accustomed to.

“Yup, recent,” Liam said. “I doubt Pennington even noticed him when setting up the damn balloons.”

“Arrivederci!” Pennington shouted to the departing vault dwellers, all but confirming Liam’s theory. “Au revoir! Auf wiedersehen! Goodbye, my friends! Good luck out there! Stay safe!”

“I miss Sparks already,” Liz said with slight contempt in her voice.

“Come on, Sonny, we’ll find another Mr. Handy out here somewhere. You’ve still got his memory chip, right?”

“Yup. Don’t worry, kiddo. We’ll have a mechanical army soon enough.”

I gave Liz a face behind her back as we continued past the deceased man.

“Enough with the kiddo kid junk. You ever going to stop calling me that?”

“Nope, never will.”

For thirty minutes, most of Vault 76 continued down the steep trail that led towards the 88 highway. As far as switchbacks go, it shouldn’t have been difficult. But at that time of my life, the most cardio I did on a regular basis was a few hours in the vault gym every week. Sure, I wasn’t out of shape, but I had never walked on uneven ground in my entire life, much less did so with a fifty-pound pack on my back. By the time we reached semi-flat earth, I wished I had brought one of the vault sweatbands with me.

Hiking through the trees and smelling pure nature for the first time is something I’ll never forget and never stop enjoying. I’ll be honest: the Forest is the only place I’ll consider setting up my C.A.M.P. anymore. Every part of West Virginia is beautiful, but only the Forest provided good hunting and relatively radiation-free soil. The water’s terrible. But then again, the water’s terrible everywhere. At least the lurks won’t jump out and snap your head off. Just your fingers, maybe. But I digress.

Checking my fold-up Vault-Tec-brand map of the area, it seemed like we’d run across a lumber mill of sorts. A place where wood was processed into planks used in house construction. I only knew this from the holotapes.

The group that stayed together and traveled east down the path numbered about one-hundred or so. A bunch of blue-and-gold wide-eyed vault dwellers: the perfect target.

Entering the mill yard, most of the group remained very quiet. Some kept the group together, leading them forwards. Then, ever the leader, Colter stood upon an abandoned wood pile and turned to address us.

“This is where we begin our reclamation,” he said. “Once we power this mill, we will have all the construction materials we need to rebuild, providing homes and shelter for all of us.”

He might have been right. The lumber mill even included yellow protectrons with saws and clamps for appendages that continued harvesting the nearby woods, declaring a needless intent to: “Chop wood. Chop wood. Chop wood.” No doubt they’d been working for the last twenty-five years by the amount of wood waiting to be processed. To a burly 76er nearest to it, it plopped a pile of wood into his arms with the words: “Please, enjoy this complimentary sample of wood.”

“Those might work,” Liz said with a grin, whispering over Colter’s continuing speech. “What do you think? We’d have all the materials we’d need to build our garage.”

“Wood, though?” I said with a grimace. “I was thinking straight to metal and concrete.”

Liam, behind us, scanned what remained of the treeline.

“I don’t like it. This place. It’s too exposed.”

“Exposed to what?” Liz asked.

“Everything,” he replied. “Gunfire, radioactive freaks. Whatever’s out there could see us for half a mile.”

Liz and I also turned to look, and the old man was right.

Very, very right.

Colter’s speech was then immediately hushed as the entire crowd gasped in awe of a figure emerging from the treeline. Then another. Then another. From the back of the group, I couldn’t get a proper look at them. But everyone else did.

“Survivors!” declared some voices. “Are they dressed?” said two or three.

“Hello!” Colter said with a grand swing of his arms. “Hello my fellow survivors! We are inhabitants of Vault 76, here to reclaim the wasteland and restore America to its former glory! Please, don’t be afraid, we are peaceful!”

At first, the three, then four, then five figures did not advance. They seemed to view us timid dwellers with great interest. For a minute or so. Murmurs of unrest rose from my fellows.

“Grab your bat, Greg,” Liam said, untying my weapon from my pack and latching his cane to his hip. As I readied myself for a melee, I heard the soldier insert a micro-cell into his laser rifle, making an electric click-bwee that told me that safeties were off.

“You don’t think they’re hostile,” Liz asked quietly.

“I know they are,” Liam said. “Come on, this way. We’ll wide circle around them and head for Flatwoods once we can’t see ‘em.”

We three broke from the group, heading north and keeping to the edge of the treeline. Off the path, the terrain grew steeper, and I stumbled more than a few times. Fallen and unretrieved logs made hiking difficult. I looked back, and saw many 76ers watch us retreat; more than a few I recognized from security made to the lumber mill interior in front of the large crowd, raising and preparing their own weapons.

“Please, come forward! We would like to make peace with you and your-”

One of the security staff grabbed Colter by the arm and brought him down, no doubt whispering to him of the potential danger.

The six, the seven, and the eight figures emerged from the trees and began to walk forwards. Security held their ground behind the processed logs while the group itself began to shuffle away from them. A growl called out from the forest, and three more human-like creatures appeared very close to us, limping down the trail we’d just descended.

Then, the screaming. God, the screaming. I’ve heard it hundreds of times since, but I’ll never forget the first mindless screech of the ghouls surrounding us. They descended upon the crowd from the south, nineteen, twenty-five, thirty-seven. I’m only guessing at the numbers, but I don’t exaggerate: they heard us all, and they came like a tidal wave of fury.

Security opened fire. The naked and emaciated husks of humanity fell easily enough, but two replaced each one that fell. The front of the group became the first victims. Ghouls jumped and tore at my fellow vault dwellers with diseased claws and gnarled teeth. Many of the vault dwellers weren’t equipped with weapons, and so fell to the wave of terror. Sure, our vault suits protected us from bites and scratches, but that’s not where the ghouls were aiming. Blood and flesh flew into the air as they ripped into necks, hands, anything exposed. Some fought back successfully, shoving the ghouls back. Many did not. The second layer of vault dwellers, at least the men, grappled with the monsters and attempted to save their fellows and loved ones. Some were successful, the more prepared 76ers clobbering and slashing the fiends with security batons and makeshift machetes we’d crafted in maintenance. The least fortunate were tackled by three, four, and five ghouls, brought to the ground and ripped apart.

Layer by layer, the ghouls flung themselves at my fellow vault dwellers as they retreated into the mill. Security continued their fire, but bullets only did so much to the horde. Those inside the mill held their own. Those less lucky holed up inside the ruined building beside it to the south. I never saw what happened to them.

“Come on, come on!” Liam hissed, his robotic leg having trouble through the brush. “Come on, get into the trees, quickly now.”

More than distracted, I watch the scene unfolding. Bloodied bodies strewn upon the ground marked the ghouls’ advance. Security’s defence seemed to waver as gunfire peppered in and out. The more intelligent and fortunate groups fled through the mill and east. I couldn’t see anything else besides the monsters entering the mill with shrieks of madness. They don’t devour the dead for sustenance; they simply attack for rage’s sake, and I witnessed that first hand.

“Don’t look back, boy, don’t look back,” Liam said to me, waving me on. I obeyed.

The ghouls didn’t see us. Pure luck. Maybe my S.P.E.C.I.A.L. test had been right about me.

Greg Villander Memoir #1, The Vault – A Fallout 76 Story


First thing’s first: I entered Vault 76 at the age of five. My mother was a famous opera singer, and my father was First Chair violinist for the National Symphony Orchestra in D.C.. Somehow, Dad convinced Vault-Tec that I was some musical prodigy that could rattle off Rachmaninoff with one hand tied behind my back. Turns out they didn’t even question it. We almost got chosen for Vault 92 because of my parents’ musical expertise. Someone named Professor Malleus insisted upon it. But, for some reason, we were instructed to stay in West Virginia near Vault 76 until a decision could be made.

When the bombs dropped, Dad told me he and Mom were positively terrified that we would be denied entry to the vault because of our representative’s indecision. But, believe it or not, our names were on the list, and the soldiers ushered us through the giant cog of a vault door.

My musical deception made it through orientation, settling into our living quarters, and three minutes before my music teacher assignment. I’ll never forget the look on Dad’s face as I was asked to play the first of Bach’s Fifth. I plunked the keys on the piano as if I were learning to type on a computer keyboard. Needless to say, the vault teachers that thought I was a piano prodigy for the ages were furious. The vault staff harshly rebuked my parents. I don’t remember the specifics of the shouting match. But, of course, they couldn’t just throw me out.

So, at first, the vault personnel sent me to the only job a non-best-of-the-best was suited for: waste disposal.

Down in 76, pre-war prestige didn’t mean much. But waste disposal? Mom cried every evening I came home covered in who-knows-what, and I’ve never seen my Dad so mad. He shouted at the busy staff for four days as I sat in the smelly innards of 76, spending most of my time crying and getting in the way of Mr. Handys. He demanded to speak to the overseer, but seeing that the vault had just gone into full service, he was repeatedly told the overseer had no time for his, and I quote, “talentless parasite”. At last, and with enough noise to pierce thick steel walls, the overseer was called down. She immediately realized putting a child down there was a mindless and ridiculous idea, even if said child was “smuggled” in. After rebuking the vault staff as harshly as they had my Dad (much to his delight), her compromise was to ask if vault maintenance would take me on as an ‘apprentice’ of sorts. The decision changed the course of my life. Mr. Donovan, Ms. Sonny, and Sparks (our custom Mr. Handy) became my second family, and the workshop on the third floor became a home away from home (even if my two homes were only a couple dozen meters away).

I learned everything there is to know about building a water purifier with my eyes closed, how to scrap a Corvega engine from the bare block and back, and fix faulty wiring when the lights went out. The best and the brightest, right? I’m not one to toot my own horn, but if I had been old enough to work for Vault-Tec before the War, they would have told me to slow down. I learned arithmetic by the millimeter, reading from nights staring at green lines of programming text, leadership skills from projects Mr. Donovan entrusted to me, and, yes, music from the rhythmic hum of a well-tuned nuclear generator. And to you Mr. Jonsen, you flat-footed germ of a man, it was me who fixed your busted Pip-Boy week after week. How you managed to get Fancy Lad snack cake crumbs behind the circuit board always astounded me.

I regularly brought up equipment like soldering irons, silicon boards, and vacuum tubes up to my room, even when the overseer cracked down on maintenance for working on personal projects. I impressed her and the vault staff, though, when I replicated a water chip by myself from studying a real one. She even allowed me to test it on water purifier number four. To my great relief, it did not blow any fuses (of which, Sparks regularly reminded me, we only had a finite amount). While Mr. Donovan reckoned it would only last a few weeks on its own before it burned out, I made a name for myself with that little stunt. By the time I was sixteen, I’d gone from apprentice to vault maintenance assistant to Mr. Donovan.

You’d think the older mechanics and electricians would look down on me for my age and inexperience. On the contrary, I was treated more than fairly by Donovan, Sonny, Franklin, Eugene, and all the rest. It was the other inhabitants of the vault that looked down on me and all of maintenance. For this reason, we all kept to each other for the most part.

The only other inhabitant of the vault I ever became friends with was Liam Peters, the security guard that kept the peace in the maintenance wing. He was in his late twenty’s back then (his wife had been nine years older; I still don’t know why that was so scandalous to others). When there was no peace to enforce (which was often), we talked a lot about pre-war life. Well, he did most of the talking, and I the asking questions. He wasn’t a normal vault dweller. For one, he had been a private during the actual Battle of Anchorage. For second, he had an honest-to-God metal leg identical to an assaultron from the RobCo technical manual that replaced his entire left leg. No wonder we had the manual! 

During the final push to retake the oil refinery on the outskirts of the city, he took a bullet that shattered his left hip. He was, quote, “on the battlefield until the god damn end”. Gangrene took his upper leg, and there was no saving the lower for the upper. For his service, and because of his particular injury, the “RobCo Valiant Service Reconstruction Project” offered him a chance to walk on two feet again, and he accepted. 

“If I had known what a piece of shit this leg of mine would be,” he said. “I would have chosen crutches.”

Again, because of his service, he accepted the offer for a place in Vault 76, so long as his wife was admitted as well. The only reason they agreed was because Mrs. Donna Peters was secretary to one Nicholas O’Leary who was a West Virginian Representative. Apparently, O’Leary gave a glowing endorsement, and that’s all it took.

And then she died in 79’. Hemorrhagic stroke. The first death in Vault 76, and she was only 39.

From the moment I met Liam, I knew why he patrolled the maintenance wing: if anything happened to that leg of his, no one in the Vault could easily carry him to the elevators (his robot leg weighed seventy pounds alone). His quarters were right next to the elevator as well, and he could always radio us for assistance. He carried a fusion power pack on his hip to power the thing, so the battery was never the issue. It was the chain-wheel assembly that pressurized the actuators. The chain would always slip no matter how many times we sharpened the wheel gears, and he’d be “limping” into the shop at least once every two or three weeks. Still, he had a hell of a right hook when hot-headed maintenance guys got into fights, and he stepped on more than a few toes (literally, not figuratively) to keep everything on the level.

Vault 76, with all of its politicians, soldiers, artists, inventors, biologists, they all grew older, and some of the more posh became wary of Reclamation Day. No one said so out loud, but the thought of leaving the vault to “reclaim” the nuclear wastes of the outside world brought a nervous air to every meeting and every presentation.

But not me. I couldn’t wait. Neither could many of my maintenance friends; a world with few survivors meant a near unlimited supply of tools, parts, and equipment. Every member of the hydroponics team were thrilled at the prospect of studying post-war flora and water radiation levels. Even the lead physician seemed keen on the great day, even though Dr. Madison acknowledged that there would be no end of patients eager for medical assistance. There were many vaults in West Virginia, and connecting with them would make reclamation all the easier.

My parents were also nervous, but seeing my enthusiasm, they softened to the idea of bringing culture to any survivors on the outside. After all, surely some had survived the awful twenty-five years of post-war life. Dad would play his violin for crowds once more, and my mother’s voice would soothe the weary souls of travelers and vault dwellers alike.

And then Dad passed away. Three years before Reclamation Day. His death devastated Mom, and my dreams of building a post-war home for him faded in an instant. A heart attack, Dr. Madison said. He was 67 in 99’. Mom mourned for an awful long time, and returning home every night from the workshop became depressingly dark. Like Liam, the loss a spouse made survival inside a vault feel meaningless. A bleak future outside, emptiness inside. Her health took a turn for the painful, as even Dr. Madison didn’t have the resources to perform a hip replacement. 

Mom took her own life in March of 2102. Overdose on painkillers and alcohol. Willingly or accidental, no one could say.

But I knew.

No longer part of a family, the overseer moved me to a smaller single living quarters, and Mr. Donovan allowed me time off to grieve. I feel ashamed to say that I didn’t require much time. I had already done my grieving for Dad, and living with Mom, so lifeless in comparison… She didn’t even sing anymore after Dad died.

Reclamation Day came faster than everyone expected. The night before the fraptious day, the whole vault partied hard. It lasted well into the night and early morning. I listened to the cheers of the vault soccer teams playing one last game, heard the toasts with 76’s remaining stock of bourbon and wine, and smelled hamburgers and fresh-baked apple pies. But I was upstairs in my quarters, writing in my journal. I had filled my backpack with all of my tools and projects. I wasn’t depressed, exactly. But when Liam knocked on my door to see why I wasn’t at the party, he sat down and we talked for a while.

Seeing my map laid out on my desk, he asked me where I planned to go.

“I’m not sure,” I said glumly. “See if there’s a trader in Flatwoods who likes fusion batteries, trade them for some food, and head to my parent’s old apartment.”

“An empty stomach and a baseball bat,” Liam said with a smirk, eyeing my “weapon” that leaned against my dresser. “Doesn’t sound like much of a plan.”

“Dad and Mom always told me they left things there when they ran to the vault. I figure it’s as good a start as any.”

“Well, we’ll have to buy you a 10-mil. No use getting killed by some mangy dog before you get there.”

I couldn’t speak for a moment.

“…you-you’re coming with me?”

“Are you joking?” he said with a laugh. “You think I can fix my leg out there on my own? Donovan’s an old coot, Sparks ain’t comin’, and who knows what Sonny’s plans are. You’re the only one I trust.”

That’s when the crying part happened.

About two hours into our conversation and planning session, I heard another knock on my door. The bulkhead opened, and Sonny looked right at me with her regularly intense stare. On her shoulder was her tool bag.

“You prepping for tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Why?” Liam asked. “You plan on beating us to Charleston?” 

“No,” Sonny said. “I’m coming with you. And I don’t care what you say.”

Again, I couldn’t say a word. I hardly expected this. Who would follow a 30-year old into the West Virginia wilderness armed with only scrap parts and a baseball bat?

“Are you serious?”

“Hah! You think you can just barge in here and demand a place on our crew?” Liam asked, folding his arms.

“Hah, crew? Two ain’t a crew. Three’s a crew.”

“It does take two people to fix your leg,” I said to the grizzled soldier.

Liam peered at Sonny.

“You’re good with a wrench, I’ll give you that. Almost as good as the kid. But what else you bringing to the table? Two car mechanics and a washed-up private doesn’t make for much survival.”

“Thought you might say that.”

Sonny then opened her bag and produced two pressurized needles filled with crimson life-restoring liquid. There were many, many more inside.

“Whoa, stimpacks? Where did you get those?”

“They ain’t giving these out until tomorrow,” Liam gruffed. “You think you can bribe us with meds? Besides, you probably stole ‘em from the clinic. That don’t make you a medic.”

“I’ll have you know I got these legitimate-like. I’ve worked with Dr. Madison more than a few times. I even helped with surgery once. I reckon I can heal bullet wounds better than anyone in this vault. Save for Mr. Madison, of course.”

“You ‘reckon’?” Liam asked. “Now that sure fills me with confidence.”

“Hey, there’s safety in numbers, right?” I said. “Three C.A.M.P.s are better than two.”

“We really plan on camping, huh?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “Say we set up right next to each other, put up some walls, rig up a motion alarm, and we’ll have a fortress we can call home. Heck, we could even set up shop next to the power plant outside Charleston. We could use the power, and I’ll bet that place is full of supplies.”

“So long as you bring a hazmat suit,” Sonny said. “But that does sound like a good idea. I’ve always wanted to see the inside of an actual nuclear power plant. Provided some yokel with a gun ain’t beat us to it.”

“True, kid. I can guarantee the folks left in the capital have restored power already.”

“Then let’s help ‘em out. What do you think? Build a garage, get paid, and run the best machine shop this side of the Ohio River!”

Sonny gave her own peculiar sideways grin, and Liam shrugged.

“I’ve heard worse plans,” he said. “Better than the one you started with.”

“I’m definitely up for it,” Sonny said. “Heh, you’ve always been the one with your metal head in the clouds. No wonder Donovan picked you as his assistant.”

“And you’ve been the troublemaker, ‘Liz,” Liam said. “Don’t make me play the discipline committee out there.”

“Says the tin man with bullets in his brain,” Sonny teased. She then smiled. “This oughta be fun.”

Responders Nuka-Cola Plant Journal – a Fallout 76 Short Story

A holotape discovered by Vault 76 survivors in the ruins of the Nuka-Cola Bottling Plant east of Flatwoods on the edge of the Ohio River.



Nuka-Cola Plant Record: written by Erica Daniels.

March 4th, 2078: 

Yes! Absolute jackpot! The moment I saw it on the map, I knew it was the thing we’ve been searching for.  If there is anything that could uplift the spirits of the Responders and the people they’re assisting, it’s a taste of the pre-war world to enjoy. And what’s better than Nuka-Cola? As far as I can tell, all of the machinery is more or less intact. All it’s going to require is a bit of oil to grease up the gears, as many glass bottles as we can find, and a few wrenches to keep it maintained. After all, I’ve heard these bottling machines can be a bit finicky; the bottles jam in the hoppers the moment you stop paying attention.

I blame the bottle designers. Sure, the shape is iconic. But having to clear jams every hour is a pain in the ass.

March 12th, 2078: 

Seventeen crates ready to go! I had one myself, and my Geiger counter spiked. It was perfect!  The selfish part of me tells me to charge for them, considering how rare they are anymore (all of the vending machines in Charleston were looted in the first two weeks), but who would do that, honestly? I mean, it’s not even that paper money has officially lost its value. But there are so many orphans in the city that need some kind of comfort, even if it’s just a bottle of ice cold cola. Well… they might not be ice-cold by the time they get there, but you know what I mean.

To my sheer disappointment, the storage tanks for the Strontium-85 had deteriorated… no, melted. No doubt by the Strontium-85 itself. They were never meant to stay in storage tanks for long, anyway. There was certainly a bright blue glow, but I didn’t dare reprogram the systems to process Nuka-Cola Quantum with contaminated radioactive ingredients. I’ve had a clean one before, and it felt like my brain was being smashed with a fruit-flavored brick… along with my pee glowing blue for a week. I heard people died flavor testing the thing. Sure, they were just rumors, but I’m not about to try getting the recipe wrong on purpose.

I didn’t want to disturb the dust of a deteriorating factory, but curiosity got the better of me. I explored the taste testing booths, and what I found blew me away. I can’t type in the entire non-disclosure or liability papers, but holy hell… They’re pretty brutal. Even donating plasma for the war effort didn’t have this many terms of agreement. And one of the taste results I read? It sounds like the guy ascended into nirvana. No thanks, I’ll keep my mortal mind restrained to reality, I think.

April 2nd, 2078:

Hoo boy, I’m glad I’m all the way out here and not in Morgantown. Heard Captain Larkin and Chief Mayfield have more than a bad feud going on between them. Can’t believe Mayfield fired on students… I didn’t go to no fancy-schmancy university, but kids are kids. It’s not like a few broken windows and walls of graffiti are going to affect us any worse than the gosh-darn end of the world already has.

Keeping that in mind, I sent fifteen crates up to the University and made certain to send a message with the boys that the Nuka was for the fire department, the police, and the students. A liquid peace treaty, if you like.

So, for the month of March, that’s ninety-seven crates sent out, forty-three to Charleston, twenty-five to Morgantown, eight to Flatwoods (in exchange for two mechanics and machine parts), seven with the medical teams, six to VTU, and eight given out free to refugees who pass by the factory.

I’m going to be very sad when the ingredients in this factory run out. I’ve seen a lot of faces brighten up to drink Nuka-Cola again. From what I hear, the next closest Nuka Bottling Plant is in D.C., and I’m not about to travel east; from the stories the refugees tell me, the capital got blown to hell and back. I realized that offering irradiated soda to already sickly irradiated people wasn’t a good idea, but just the opportunity of tasting America’s number-one soda again made people happy for the first time in months. These moments make enduring the factory’s lack of air conditioning and constant assembly line malfunctions worth it.

Who knew the Nuka-Cola corporation would become a non-profit?

May 16th, 2078:

Well, it was too good to last. This Tuesday at two o’clock, the red lights came on and the line halted. All of the ingredient tanks were empty, except for one with a peculiar scent of seventeen fruit-flavors and rubbing alcohol. Better yet, when I opened it, an explosion of flies burst out like the damn plagues of Egypt. It wasn’t until I checked the terminal in a panic that I realized that this particular tank was disconnected from the line. A few of the boys saw it happen, and they all swore to secrecy. Dodged a very large bullet there, and I’m not about to tell anyone.

This morning Captain Larkin and her fellow officers stopped by the factory and congratulated us personally. I couldn’t believe it. “It’s not just soda,” she told us. “And it’s more than just morale. It’s a sign that we can bring the world back again with a wrench and a bit of willpower.” That made this whole venture worth it. She even told me that my stubborn captain-of-the-guard brother Tom sent his gratitude; apparently his men loved the factory’s particular post-war taste. 

Anyway, the boys and I cracked open the line’s last bottles of icy cola with Captain Larkin and her group. We sent the last four crates with them as well. And now it’s just clean-up duty. We’ll scavenge what we can and send it off to Charleston.

I wonder where me and the boys will go next. I hear there’s a giant teapot right up the hill, and I’m dying for some authentic sweet tea.

Monorail Elevator Recordings – A Fallout 76 Short Story

Discovered by Vault 76 survivors within the mainframe of the Appalachian Monorail Elevator’s second level. Recording as follows (transcript included).



October 23rd, 8:11 AM.                                                 

AMS would like to inform all passengers that monorail system maintenance has detected a minor fault. All passengers are instructed to remain calm as maintenance has been notified. Expected maintenance wait time is ten to fifteen minutes. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 9:48 AM.                                                  

AMS would like to inform all passengers that monorail system maintenance has detected an unexpected fault. All passengers are instructed to remain calm as maintenance has been notified. Expected maintenance wait time is two to four hours. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 9:49 AM.                                                 

AMS would like to inform all passengers of B car that a major fault has been discovered in train car coupler. Expected maintenance wait time is seven to ten days. Counseling will be made available at the next station, courtesy of Hornwright Industries. We remind you to keep all legs, hands, and arms inside the monorail car at all times. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 11:22 PM.

Alert: all passengers are reminded to please remain in their seats with their legs, hands, and arms inside the cabin at all times. Exit doors should remain closed for your safety. In case of medical emergency, first aid supplies can be found at the front and rear of the car. Counseling will be made available at the next station, courtesy of Hornwright Industries. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

Error: Unable to reset train car exit doors. Maintenance and authorities have been notified.

Christmas Night – Fallout 76 Short Story


Jacob tried to sleep. His watch was in fifteen minutes, and he hadn’t slept a wink. But the thought of Julia, alone in Charleston…

That’s a stupid thought, he mused. There’s over two-thousand people in Charleston. She can’t possibly be less alone. She’s probably the least ‘alone’ person in all of Appalachia, possibly the whole of America. Be honest: you’re less worried about her and more selfish about yourself.

Here he was, shivering in a ratted sleeping bag beneath an equally-ratted tent on the road to Summersville Dam. The night of Christmas Eve. Naturally, he’d drawn the short stick for dam patrol. Of course he’d drawn the short stick. Larkin always had a stick up her ass when it came to patrol orders, but maybe this time she had a point calling for double duty. The raiders that came down from Pleasant Valley the day before were anything but pleasant, and chose a fine time to hit the city. And who knew when more would be back. Every able-bodied Responder was on high alert while everyone else in the valley tried their best to stay optimistic. 

That Christmas, the engineers chopped down the biggest tree they could haul, raised it in the center of the capitol building rotunda, and, with help from all the children and orphans, decorated it with tinsel, electric lights, and as many unbroken baubles as they could find.

Even with the threat of limited medical supplies and food, a meager supply of bullets and weapons, and the constant pall of danger from the mountain, the Responders and all the people under the care could forget that the bombs had dropped for at least one night. Food would be plentiful. Cake and cookies, whiskey for the adults, Nuka-Cola for the kids. Presents would be passed around, working appliances, toys, tools, and scavenged cigars. Then, at midnight, Christmas carols followed by a long winter’s nap.

And Jacob was chattering his teeth out on the road to nowhere without a single hint of season’s cheer.

“Fuck,” he growled, turning over. He waited two minutes more to see if his core would flare to life. It did not.

“Fuck it!” he shouted, scrambling out of his sleeping bag in a frozen rage. By the time he’d flailed his way out of the tent, he’d already turned into a solid. He bitterly pulled and tied his hood over his head, bending down to retrieve his hunting rifle. At the same time, the ammo in his loose pocket fell to the ground; at least he’d remembered to put the seven-round clips inside a bag this time.

Jacob then heard the deep chuckle of Kuznetsov some meters away.

“Found a snake in your sleeping bag?”

“Don’t laugh at me, Kuv,” Jacob said, his voice cracking and his rifle barely hanging from his shoulder by the strap. “How the hell do you stand this cold, anyway? You don’t even have a hood.”

At first, the old man did not answer. He inhaled the last of his Tortoise and threw the cigarette butt to the ground.

“Where are you from, Vickens?” he asked with his thick accent, blowing addictive comfort into the air.

Jacob lifted his rifle to check the action. Naturally, it hadn’t been oiled in some time. But neither had any gun in Charleston’s arsenal.

“Beckley,” he said.

“Aye. But where are you really from?” Kuznetsov said with a lilt in his voice.

Jacob frowned and sighed. He’d been partnered with the old man for a week or so, and he found Kuznetsov a quiet but sturdy individual. Jacob wondered if he had been a Commie sympathizer before the War. Not that it mattered anymore anyway. Warming his fingerless gloves with steaming breath, Jacob regretted the fact that no one in the US ever needed to design a gun that worked with mittens.

“New Mexico, if you must know,” Jacob said. “Santa Fe.”

“The desert boy stuck in the freezer,” Kuznetsov said with a chuckle, a small grin forming behind his bushy mustache.

“Hah hah,” Jacob replied with a roll of his eyes. “Laugh it up. Besides, if I didn’t tell you, you’d keep digging.”

“You know me so well.”

“So where are you from, huh? Somewhere cold, I’ll bet. Moscow or something?”

The old man shook his head and adjusted his hat.

“Hah, Moscow. I love Americans,” he said. “So ignorant about every country besides their own.”

“That’s because ours is the best one out there,” Jacob said with a smile, leaning on his heels.

Kuznetsov laughed.

“Now there’s a fine patriot.”

It was silent for a moment, wind whistling through the trees. Even then, the ice and snow created an echo chamber of the visible quarter-mile.

“Well, russki?” Jacob said. “Are you going to reveal your mysterious origins?”

Kuznetsov eyed Jacob for a moment. He couldn’t tell, but Kuznetsov appeared to be judging whether Jacob was worthy of that piece of information.

“Kiev,” Kuznetsov said at last.

Jacob’s brow furrowed.

“Keeve? Where the hell’s that?”

Kuznetsov folded his hands in front of him, perhaps restraining them before they became fists. Jacob could never tell if the man wanted to give him a hug or strangle him.

“Ukrayina,” he replied. After a moment, he added, “Ukraine, to you.”

“Ukraine, huh?” Jacob asked. But then something clicked. “So you ain’t a russki after all?”

“Niet. But I might as well be, since no one could tell the difference after the invasions. I left Kiev with my wife in ‘45. Back then, you don’t walk the street with less than three people unless you like being mugged. We come to America hoping it would be safer here. It was not. I was attacked many times because of my accent. Our home was broken into many times.”

“Damn,” Jacob said. “Did you call the police at all?”

Kuznetsov laughed.

“And what would that do? I’d go to prison for accusing red-blooded Americans for assaulting a Communist. I would disappear, like many of my neighbors.”

Jacob nodded. His face then darkened.

“It wasn’t right,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t say anything. In high school, I’d always hear about some jock being scolded just because they wore a red jacket, or some girl saying something the teachers didn’t like to hear. A Korean kid in my class was taken by policemen in the middle of my history lecture sophomore year. Turns out his whole family was shipped somewhere. He wasn’t a commie at all, he just looked Chinese.”

Kuznetsov was silent.

“I was always the joke at SF High, too. I’m haemophilic, see. It’s only moderate, but it was enough to make me 4-F. All of my friends got shipped off to Anchorage, and I get stuck working as an electrician. Everybody thought I was dodging the draft after I graduated. So I thought I’d disappear, too.”

“You would rather die on the battlefield than live in your homeland?” asked Kuznetsov.

Jacob huffed.

“Sure, if you call this living, freezing my ass off on Christmas Eve.”

“Your job is important. You have water, cram, a warm bed,” Kuznetsov said, tilting his head with every item. “Medicine sometimes.”

He paused.

“And you defend the defenseless. Your friends may have died for their country, but you live for what remains of it.”

Jacob thought for a moment, adjusting his rifle.

“I guess you’re right,” he said.

“You have family left?” Kuznetsov asked.

The gravel and dirty snow on the uneven road cracked beneath Jacob’s feet.

“Not exactly.”

Kuznetsov’s head tilted towards him.

“Try to make one of your own, then?”

Jacob laughed lightly.

“Yeah. I’ve got a girl. Her name’s Julia. You may have seen her at dinner.”

“Julia. Hmm. Not beautiful Julia that works in the infirmary?”

“Yeah, she’s the one. She’s doing God’s work while I fix light switches.”

“You need light to see, don’t you? And she can’t heal without light.”

Jacob laughed again, deeper this time.

“Now you’re starting to sound like Father Gilbert.”

Kuznetsov grinned.

“I suppose I do.”

“You said you had a wife,” Jacob said without thinking. “Is she here? With the Responders?”

Kuznetsov remained silent. Again, Jacob couldn’t read his face. Uncomfortable, Jacob turned away, content to scan the treeline.

“Sorry,” he said. “That was an awful private question.”

“Of all the places we went together, I think here, in Charleston, would have been her favorite.”

Jacob grinned.

“You think she could stand Philip’s cook-”

Whizz.

Right past Jacob’s ear.

Followed by a not-so-distant crack.

“Derr`mo!” shouted Kuznetsov, shoving Jacob towards the treeline. Jacob hardly processed what had happened by the time he and the Ukranian had collapsed off the side of the road: someone had nearly taken off his head with a crisp .308 round. Kuznetsov was on his feet before Jacob had a chance to catch his breath, finding cover behind a fallen tree and firing his rifle into the distance. “On your feet, Vickens! On your feet!”

Jacob shook the dizzy out of his head and hoisted himself to his knees. On habit, he again checked the action on his rifle. His mind then frantically remember something of vital import: he couldn’t fire his gun without bullets. Kuznetsov was already on his third clip before Jacob could tear open his ammo bag with trembling fingers.

It was then he heard the shouting. God, the shouting. The snow must have amplified the sound of a raider rampage, because there was no way that many were advancing. 

“Why are they attacking the dam!” Jacob shouted above the din of Kuznetsov’s fire, joining him at the fallen tree. “There’s no one up here!”

“Think, boy!” Kuznetsov shouted back. “If the dam comes down, all of Charleston goes with it!”

“Comes down?! Wha- The raiders would need artillery, or, or, bulldozers! Or-”

“Jacob, I need you to run!” Kuznetsov shouted, firing again. “Run and alert the rest of the men. Peterson and the others won’t be able to hold the dam themselves!”

“What?!” Jacob shouted as a bullet tore off bark from their cover. “You’re coming with me!”

“Damn it, boy! Peterson will be on his way! Go tell Larkin what is happening!”

“You don’t know that! Kuz, you’re going to get yourself killed!”

“And you’re going to get us all killed if you don’t go!”

Kuznetsov fired a clip more before Jacob pulled him down. Anger boiled in him, along with the adrenaline.

“What happened to living for your homeland, huh?!”

“This is not my homeland,” he hissed back. “But the people down there are my family. They are your family!”

Kuznetsov jammed another clip in his rifle, fired, and came back down when another bullet tore off frozen wood.

“You are my family, Jacob,” he said with surprising calm. “Go live for your family, live for Julia. Now go! Go!”

Kuznetsov shoved Jacob backwards. Jacob tumbled away, and without looking back, staggered to his feet as he felt bullets rain through the freeze-dried air. He ran like hell towards the crossroads to Charleston, the gunfire and howls of lunatics following behind him.

On his way back down, he did indeed see Peterson and his men running in the opposite direction towards his foreign partner.

But he never did learn what happened to Kuznetsov.

When the nuclear explosion rocked the dam fifteen minutes into his lung-burned sprint, he knew he was too late. He could only watch as the entirety of Summersville Lake fell upon the festive and unsuspecting city.

He never saw Julia again. 

Upon his knees, the weight of the world crashed upon him. 

And upon the flooded city of Charleston, gentle wisps of snow fell from the darkened sky.

Valiant’s Fall – Fallout 76 Short Story


Valiant Information and Inventory Management System (V.I.M.S.) now recording.

September 23rd, 2077, approximate time, 0235 hours EST.

Log created by: Technician J. Peters. 

Storage Room B2. Access code: 0 1 0 2 8 8.

Storage B2 Inventory List: three-hundred-seventeen-point-one-five units of recycled water, sixty-five-point-seven-six units of nutrient processor cartridges, seventeen relaxation modules.

Water rerouted to mess hall. Balanced water storage from storage rooms A3 and C5 to maintain precise outer ring rotation. Twelve nutrient processor cartridges to refill Alpha and Epsilon processors checked out. Three relaxation modules checked out.

Actions performed: Access code reset. New password: 1 0 1 0 9 7.

End of log.


October 13th 2077, approximate time, 1152 hours EST.

Log created by: Technician R. McClellen, Technician R. Philips, Engineer L. Richardson.

Airlock C5. Access code: 0 9 3 0 9 8.

Inventory List: Five pressurized E-V-A suits, six E-V-A. oxygen tanks, C5 pressurized oxygen reserves at 87 percent.

Actions performed: extra-vehicular maintenance scheduled for 1238 hours EST. Three E-V-A suits and six E-V-A oxygen tanks checked out.

Inner doors sealed.

Outer doors opened.

Extra-vehicular maintenance on docking clamp Alpha-Delta-Omicron and extending arm performed in six hours, thirteen minutes, 46.22 seconds.

Outer doors sealed.

Inner doors opened.

Three E-V-A suits and six E-V-A oxygen tanks checked in. C5 oxygen reserves at 56 percent.

End of log.


Continual log created by: Commander T. Michaels.

Communications Access Hub A1. Access code: 1 0 2 8 0 8

Inventory List: Hermes Extra-Communications Transmission and Reception (H.E.C.T.O.R.) set to one-forty-five-point-eight-megahurtz. 

Actions Performed: Transmissions sent to U-S-S-A Bloomfield Mission Command, recorded on October 23, 2077 at approximate time, 1812 hours EST.

Message transcripts as follows: “Mission control, this is Commander Michaels, please respond on wavelength one-forty-four-point-four-nine. Partial message received but we were unable to hear through the interference. Control, please repeat message.”


Next message transcription, recorded on October 24, 2077 at approximate time, 0445 hours EST.

“Mission control, this is Commander Michaels, please respond. God, please respond. I’d ask if this is some kind of sick joke, but McClellen and Peters thought they saw lights flashing over the eastern coast yesterday. There’s nothing strong enough to make flashes like that except-

Control, please respond. Setting emergency signal on repeat, will continue to contact.”


Next message transcription, recorded on October 28th 2077, approximate time, 0814 hours EST.

“Mission control, this is Commander Michaels. If you’re hearing this, everyone is becoming quite scared up here. McClellan began to panic yesterday trying to intercept emergency signals, and afterwards spent most of the day pacing on the outer ring trying to keep her mind off of things. Is the resupply mission still scheduled for November 23rd? Repeat, is the resupply scheduled? We really need to hear from you, Control.”


Next message transcription, recorded on November 12th 2077, approximate time, 1238 hours EST.

“Mission control, please tell us you’re listening. We began rationing water on November 5th, and rationing nutrient cartridges on November 10th. Richardson, Philips, Beuren, Jensen and I are staying focused and positive, but Peters is going to run out of antipsychotics in less than two weeks. Control, if you’re still there, we need some kind of confirmation. McClellen confined herself in her quarters two days ago, and no amount of knocking is making her come out. Not even a crowbar worked to force the door. She didn’t change her access code, so she must have shorted it out. I don’t think she has food or water in there. We need good news up here, or the situation is only going to get worse.”


Next message transcription, recorded on December 2nd 2077, approximate time, 1126 hours EST.

“Mission control, this is- God, if you don’t know who I am by now, there’s no point.

America. She can’t be gone. We couldn’t see any lights down there as we passed over. We hadn’t even noticed it before because no one wanted to check.

McClellen is gone. She never came out. Even if she took water in with her, I don’t think she lasted three and a half weeks sealed in there.

Peters is starting to lose it. I knew he joined this crew because of his biological expertise, but he didn’t tell anyone how bad he could get without meds. Philips tried synthesizing something for him, but we just don’t have the chemicals onboard, and we don’t dare make the situation worse with makeshift prescriptions.

Richardson has stopped working and devoted himself to prayer, and Jensen has followed him. Beuren and I are starting to question why we should continue our scientific work. ‘It’s better than diving into the relaxation modules or taking sedatives until the end comes,’ I told him. I don’t think that lifted our spirits much.”


December 24th 2077, approximate time, 1843 hours EST.

Log created by: Technician J. Peters.

Airlock C6. Access code: 1 1 1 0 1 5.

Inventory List: Two pressurized E-V-A suits, four E-V-A. oxygen tanks, C6 pressurized oxygen reserves at 35 percent.

Actions performed: One E-V-A suit and four E-V-A oxygen tanks checked out.

Actions performed: Access code reset. New password: 111418.

Inner doors sealed.

Outer doors opened.

C6 Oxygen reserves at zero percent.

End of log.


Continual log created by: Commander T. Michaels.

Next message transcription, recorded on December 25th 2077, approximate time, 0119 EST.

“Peters spaced himself. And he even changed the door code to lock us out.

Shit.

He’s got ten hours of O2 at best. And worse, I can’t let anyone go out there through another door to try to bring him back. We’ll probably lose whoever goes after him. Two hours ago Peters started acting violent, and near stabbed Beuren with a scalpel. He even got a flying start at him from C corridor. How Beuren avoided it in zero-G, I’m not sure. He was just lucky Jensen and I were in the room at the same time. Four grown men flailing weightless. Can you imagine?

We’re like rats on a sinking ship. We confined him to Storage Room C4, but he obviously found a way out. Then he took the long walk.

Merry fucking Christmas.

Philips used a few of our junk parts and replicated a science experiment that he’d seen back in his graduate days. Rock candy crystals grown in space. Something so simple to lift the mood, and then this happened. I wouldn’t have considered it a month ago, but I think I’m spending this Christmas… and maybe a few days after… with med-X from the med bay and a few packets of sherry from the relaxation modules. It’s not like I can get drunk with this watered-down garbage. But it’s something. Thank God the alcohol rules were changed last year. Sedatives and sherry, coming right up.”


February 4th, 2077, approximate time, 0312 hours EST.

Control Room V.I.M.S. alert.

Log confirmed by: Technician A. Jensen.

Inventory Shortage: Station propellant reserves at two-percent.

Please resupply immediately. Failure will result in station orbit destabilization.

Repeat, please resupply immediately. Failure will result in station orbit destabilization.

Alert confirmed by: Technician A. Jensen and Commander T. Michaels.

End of log.


H.E.C.T.O.R. incoming transmission to Communications Access Hub A1.

Warning: incorrect access code. Overwritten. Received on all functional broadband frequencies. 

Transcription unavailable. Transmission lasted 7.33 seconds.

Actions requested by: Commander T. Michaels

Actions performed: Query all U-S-S-A satellites to pinpoint source of transmission.

Action results: 35 U-S-S-A satellites disconnected from network. Remaining 14 satellites performed shortwave broadcast scan on February 15th, 2078 at 0563 hours EST.

No results.

Source of transmission: unknown.

End of log.


Continual log created by: Commander T. Michaels.

Next message transcription, recorded on March 15th 2078, approximate time, 0212 hours EST.

“Well, that’s it, then. According to estimates, we’ve got seventy-two hours before the station starts feeling the burn. Who knows what made that last transmission. Hell, it could have been aliens for all the good it did us. I suppose it’s a small mercy that the oxygen and the water didn’t run out before the propellant did. Barely. We tried venting the oxygen reserves through the stabilizers, but it only bought us a couple more days, maybe a week. Beyond that, we would have suffocated instead of burned. I don’t know which I would have preferred. I asked the crew if they wanted to be sedated before everything happened. Jensen and Philips agreed, and so did I.

Richardson said the last thing he wanted to do was pray to God with a clear mind, and I have no problem with that. Beuren’s been inside Airlock C7 for a few hours, but I haven’t heard any alerts. Maybe he’s contemplating suicide.

None of us are as strong as Richardson. I know the only reason I was chosen as commander for the last nine months instead of him was because of my flight record. But it’s not like I’m dogfighting pinkos up here. I know this record might not survive re-entry, but it feels like I’m accomplishing one last thing before I’m gone. Hell, I don’t even have a family to say goodbye to. No wife, no kids… I poured everything into my career, and look where I ended up. I guess I’m glad I didn’t have a family for them to die in a world like this. 

All right. Last words, I guess. For Rachel McClellen, Jake Peters, Rob Philips, Lucius Richardson, David Beuren, Aaron Jensen, and Tyson Michaels, this is the last transmission from the crew of the U-S-S-A Valiant Space Station. If anyone is alive down there and listens to this, know that we remained devoted to God and our country. Whenever and wherever you are, keep the spirit of freedom alive. That’s all we can ask.”

End of continual log.

Alyssum – Chapter Sixteen

mountain

A warm and wet tongue slobbered all over Aeo’s face, and he could do nothing about it besides open his eyes. The morning sun blinded him momentarily. It was Poro, standing tall over him and licking his hair and forehead. Aeo tried to lift his arms to make her stop, but they wouldn’t move. He tried raising his head; his muscles didn’t answer his commands. Even his heartbeat was slow and exhausted, leaving him lethargic and light-headed.

“Aeo, are you awake?” asked a voice. Leon, somewhere to his side.

“Mmm,” Aeo said, his throat hoarse. Even his lungs and his vocal cords refused to offer their regular services.

“…you did this?”

Aeo’s eyes attempted to peer over towards Leon. No use. All he could see was Poro’s enormous face and the blue sky.

“These wolves… Goddess, they’re… melted.”

“Mmm,” Aeo said. Now he remembered. So much fire… The dream had kept him alive. The voice. She kept both of them alive.

“How… did you do this?” Leon asked.

Aeo didn’t respond, and felt grateful he couldn’t.

“At least nothing else attacked us last night.”

“Mmm,” Aeo hummed.

“I’m feeling much better with the aether in me,” Leon said. “Can you move at all, Aeo?”

Aeo tried to wiggle his toes and fingers, or flex his cheek muscles; not even a twinge of movement. The rocks beneath the small of his back and shoulder blades made him unbelievably uncomfortable and sore.

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo replied. Poro licked Aeo’s nose, lips, and chin.

“There’s an important lesson for you, I suppose,” Leon said. “Use all your animis, and you become quite useless. Remember void sickness? Let me see, where is my… ah, here’s my marker.”

Aeo heard Leon rise from the ground, and finally saw him enter the frame of his limited vision.

“Silly horse,” Leon said, gently shoving Poro away. Poro relented, rolling the cart that remained attached to her. Leon nearly reached out his hand to touch Aeo’s forehead, but then he stopped cold. Leon’s eyes opened wide, and his mouth turned downwards in dread. He touched Aeo’s bloody neck and carefully lifted Aeo’s arm to examine it. “Aeo… Goddess, what did those things do to you…”

Aeo’s eyes examined Leon, rolling about in his head as if they were the last remaining bodily functions Aeo could utilize.

“Come on,” Leon said, sliding his arms beneath Aeo’s head and legs. “Do your best to stay awake. You’ve lost a lot of blood. And the last thing you need is an infection.”

Leon lifted the boy up with a grunt, and Aeo realized just how exhausted his body had become: his arm, now covered in thick dried blood, dangled downwards, his head toppled to the side without his consent, and his core muscles refused to flex or contract. Pain, however, had not dulled in the slightest. Although the wagon lacked much space, Leon lifted the back bar and let it fall to the ground. Then he placed Aeo into the back of the wagon as far as his arms would allow, and climbed up himself. The wood of the wagon creaked and complained with both of them inside.

“Can you speak?” Leon asked, opening one of the boxes and producing a roll of cotton cloth.

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo replied.

“I don’t know how you did it, but you saved my life,” Leon said quietly, unrolling the cloth. “I suppose you couldn’t shield yourself this time?”

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo mumbled.

“So, just your fire then… From the results, I certainly never want to be on the receiving end of your magick. You really do have to tell me if you’ve done this before.” Leon reached for his bag, and from the main compartment, he pulled out a wide bottle with a fancy label. He twisted the lid open, and sniffed its contents. “Still fresh. Good. Goddess, how do I do this… First thing’s first, I suppose. I’m sorry I have to do this, but it’s a good thing you have a spare shirt.”

Before Leon could explain what he meant, Leon produced his pocket knife. With a few quick strokes, he sliced Aeo’s bloody and blackened shirt right down the middle and pulled the material as far away from the neck wound as possible. With another thicker cotton cloth, Leon poured water from the water keg and let it soak. Then, to Aeo’s horror, Leon gently pressed it against his neck. Pain shot through him like lightning, but Aeo’s body had little strength to react. Worse, even his face couldn’t show his discomfort besides blinking faster and faster.

“Mmm, hmmm,” Aeo said as loudly as his voice allowed.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Leon said. “I need to see where the bite marks are. You’re not bleeding anymore, I’m trying not to cause it again.”

Leon carefully rolled Aeo over to his side and cleaned the back of the boy’s neck as well; the wound appeared deep, but with the thick blood washed off, perhaps it looked better than Leon expected. Once cleaned, the wound didn’t appear as terrible as it had appeared. Leon repeated the process with Aeo’s arm. The wound burned and stung as Leon lifted it upwards and cleaned both sides.

Setting the red-soaked cloth down, Leon reached for his bottle of ointment. In thick coats, he rubbed it into Aeo’s skin beginning with his arm. Once finished with a coat of cream on all sides, Leon wrapped it tightly and quickly with a wrap of light cotton. In the very least, the sharpness of the pain in that spot reduced to a simmer.

“I’m not sure what to do with your neck,” Leon admitted. “Perhaps when you can move, we can try wrapping bandages around your chest. Until then, perhaps the cream alone will do well enough.”

As Leon administered to Aeo, he sighed.

“Although you might have been impressed by my display yesterday,” Leon said quietly. “I am not a warrior. Not nearly, not like the masters that will be teaching you. I don’t have the stamina to endure a long fight, never have. It’s all I can do to hit hard and fast, and hope my animis holds out until the job is through. You, though… you might not feel strong now, but you did burn down an entire village merely by wanting to. And what you did to the wolves… There were certainly more than just those three. It’s a miracle they didn’t do you worse harm. I told you you had more strength than you think. Someone is watching over you and I.”

Aeo tried to open his jaw to speak, but it and his entire face simply hung passive. His eyes, though, walked around the wagon and spoke volumes.

“I never expected you to protect me like that. And I never wanted you to have to.”

Aeo looked back at Leon and managed to blink.

“But I’m very glad you did,” Leon said, rolling Aeo to his side to apply more cream to the boy’s back. “Thank you, Aeo. I told you I would need your help someday. I just didn’t expect the day to come this quickly.”

“Mmm,” Aeo said, blinking. Although his face showed no emotions at all, he would have at least smiled through the pain.

 

*     *     *     *     *     *

 

The entire first day from morning to night, Aeo could not move. Try as he might, none of his muscles even quivered. The cart rolled along at a much slower pace than previous days, probably due to Leon’s own lack of strength and ability to focus. Aeo didn’t feel trapped in a motionless body, exactly. It was more like floating weightlessly in a lake while the rhythm of the current washed to and fro. His mind very much reflected the drain his body experienced. His eyes could move, but they couldn’t rightly focus on the canvas above him. Leon had instructed him to stay awake, but he couldn’t help drift in and out with the gentle rocking of the cart and comforting air that blew over him. Leon had nearly covered him in a fur blanket, but thought otherwise at the last second; for this, Aeo was extremely grateful. About an hour down the road, his uninjured arm that sat upon his bare chest fell to his side of its own accord. For a while, it felt comfortable. But then it started to fall asleep, jammed up too closely to one of the boxes. It soon fell quite numb, and no matter how loudly his voice hummed and mumbled, Leon couldn’t hear his cries for help above the din of the wagon. It wasn’t until Leon took a break in the late morning and adjusted Aeo’s position did sweet, merciful blood flow correctly again.

Long into the evening, Aeo lay prone in the dark, ever staring upwards. Maybe now I can sleep, he thought to himself. After Leon had released Poro to rest, eat, and drink, he appeared at the back of the wagon and hopped inside. Taking a seat on one of the boxes, he leaned down with one of the waterskins.

“One of the worst things about void sickness,” he said. “Is getting thirsty and hungry. And needing to use the restroom, of course. You’re probably feeling all of this right now.”

To be honest, Aeo hadn’t noticed much until Leon pointed it out. His tongue and throat were dry from his mouth hanging loose all day. He felt mildly peckish, but he certainly felt the uncomfortable weight of his digestive system. One of three of these things needed to be addressed very soon.

“Fortunately, I don’t think you’ll be sick for very long, not nearly as long as others. Most can’t even move their eyes or make noise. And… I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I feel you should know… Scholars that have suffered from void sickness much more severely become like infants and need… well, they need their pants changed regularly.”

“Mmmm…” Aeo hummed long and low like a grumble.

“Not terribly exciting news, I know,” Leon said. “But you saved my life, so of course I’m obligated to help. Do you need any assistance now?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“That’s a yes?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Water?”

“Hm-mmm.”

“No? Um… restroom?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Oh. Naturally, I’m sure. Liquid only, I hope?”

“Hmm-mm.”

“No? Oh. Of course. What I mean to say… Eh, hmm. This will be a little more difficult, then. I have a bit of experience in this, although the Academy never taught me the specifics, being in the middle of nowhere and all. Um… Right. Let’s see. Let me carry you off the road, and… I suppose we’ll figure it out as we go. Let me grab the paper…”

The second day continued much as the first, with Aeo completely unable to move his limbs or his body. Fortunately, it felt as though some amount of control had appeared in his face, his fingers, and his toes. Ever so slightly, he could curl his digits, and when he really concentrated, he could raise and lower his eyebrows. He could even keep his mouth shut and weakly swallow, which helped immensely with his sore throat.

The only real problems (besides bathroom breaks, obviously) were eating and drinking. Leon could lift Aeo into a seated position and lean his head forwards a bit, pressing the waterskin to his lips and allowing him precious water. It was an unfamiliar and disconcerting combination of allowing the water to pass freely without swallowing while attempting to not drown. His muscles that controlled the flow of water in his throat weren’t in a very strong position to do their job properly. He couldn’t rightly cough when too much water passed down the wrong tube, either, though Leon had the experience and knew when to stop when Aeo’s eyes started to bulge. As for food, Leon admitted there really wasn’t anything they had in the cart that didn’t involve a lot of chewing. Besides, considering the state of his throat, Aeo probably didn’t want something solid in his esophagus. Leon tried boiling some of the dried meat into a broth, and Aeo enjoyed the salty flavor, but it only did so much to cure his aching stomach.

Like the first day, Aeo’s mind rocked back and forth with the wagon, and he found it difficult to think about any one thing for very long. The pain in his shoulder and arm made things even worse. When he tried to think about the voice that spoke to him, it felt like a distant memory, a half-remembered song. Aeo tried to think about Pick to invoke some emotion. If he lived, what would he and Shera be doing in that very moment? Even this was too difficult, much to his disappointment.

By the end of the second day, he could feel the gnawing sensation of hunger in his stomach growing. Water couldn’t satisfy, and with communication restrained to ‘mm-hmm’ and ‘hmm-mm’, there wasn’t much complaining about it.

Though his mind remained clouded, one thing became certain: he decided that void sickness was terrible, and never wanted to experience it again.

The morning of the third day, Aeo woke up to a hunger that he’d only experienced three or four times in his life (the other three or four being times when Aristé “forgot” to feed him when food stocks became low during harsh winters). The morning light had just risen above the horizon, and he heard Leon getting Poro ready for the day. He moaned from the emptiness. And that’s when the realization came: he could moan. He tried to mouth a few syllables with his lips and tongue; as if his face had been numbed, they could only form ‘ah’, ‘eh’, and an unsteady ‘em’, perhaps a slight ‘oh’ or ‘ay’. He swallowed, blinked his eyes, tightened his cheek muscles, opened and closed his mouth. Everything seemed to be functioning, albeit slowly. Even his fingers and toes could move on their own, although lifting his arms or legs remained out of the question. The pain in his neck and arm had fallen to a slow burn, aided by the fact that he could not move them.

When Leon rounded the corner of the wagon to come check on him, Aeo said in the loudest voice he could muster:

“Lee-on.”

“Aeo?” Leon asked. “You’ve got your voice back! Good boy!”

“Hung…rae,” Aeo whispered.

“What’s that?” Leon asked, climbing into the wagon. He took a seat. “Say it again.”

“Hung-rae,” Aeo repeated.

“Oh, hungry. Hmm. Do you want to try eating something?”

Aeo nodded slightly. He then realized he could nod slightly.

“I’m not sure you should just yet… Although it has been quite a while, hasn’t it? You must have spent an incredible amount of energy to make you this sick. No more fighting wolves from now on, young man.”

Aeo tried to laugh. It came out as a guttural groan.

“Let’s see what we have again,” Leon said, climbing over Aeo to get to the box at the front. “Hmm, jerky and bread are probably still too tough. Apples might be too difficult as well, although I could try cutting them up. Oh! You know something? I completely forgot about these.”

Leon reached over towards a box on the far side of the wagon. The moment he opened the lid, Aeo heard the pop of a ward vanish. Inside was a small ceramic pot with a sealed lid, which Leon removed.

“Here, just one moment,” Leon said, setting the pot down. Covering the box again, concentration filled his face as he placed a single hand against the lid. Although Aeo could not see a glyph nor a shining light this time, he did hear a pop of magick. Leon lifted his hand and sat back down.

Another preservation ward. Those wards came very easy to Leon, simple as lighting a lantern.

“These,” Leon said, uncovering the ceramic lid from the pot. Inside was a pile of small spherical green berries. “Well, they have no name. Just like the plant they grow on. But they are delicious, and make a wonderful citrus tea. I must warn you, they have seeds inside them, but if you’re careful, you can chew them up without much trouble. Might have been dangerous yesterday. Care to try a few? Maybe one at a time to start.”

“Mmm,” Aeo said, nodding.

“Let’s get you sat up a bit,” Leon said. With a few grunts and groans, Leon positioned Aeo against the boxes behind him and placed the down pillows behind his back to help cushion against the solid wood. He even lifted Aeo’s head into a comfortable position resting at a slight angle upwards.

Leon took a berry and carefully placed it in Aeo’s mouth. The simple act of chewing felt as though someone had placed a leather harness in his jaw to keep his teeth apart. But the moment his molars got hold of the strange berry and clamped down, the juice of the berry burst against his tongue. Leon was slightly incorrect about the taste; the berry was absolutely divine. Once, Aeo had been allowed to suck on a wedge of lemon just to entertain travelers at the inn with his face’s reaction to its crazy sourness. Very similar, the berry’s juice made him pucker — as much as he could pucker, of course — and made him swallow the berry too soon.

“Aeo, are you okay?” Leon asked, seeing the boy’s face. “You’re not choking, are you?”

Aeo shook his head as well as he could manage.

“Good,” Aeo replied quietly.

“Too bitter?”

Aeo shook his head again.

“Sss… Ss-ower.”

Leon let out a laugh.

“Should have told you about that,” he said. “Aren’t they fantastic?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Care for another?”

“Yah.”

As day three progressed, Aeo felt a lot of improvement in his energy levels and concentration. Where in previous days he had difficulties focusing his eyes both near and far, Aeo could quite clearly observe everything in the cart and even peer out the rear of the wagon to view the road and the beautiful autumn morning. When the cart came to a rickety old bridge about mid-day, Leon instructed him to hold on as well as he could. With his seated position, Aeo still could not fully lift his arms to brace himself. But his arms and legs could tighten and his fingers could hold, so they anchored themselves against the boxes as the cart rumbled across the planks of the bridge. The strain to balance himself made his injured arm flare.

“Seems they don’t care for this part of the road,” Leon said as the wagon rolled upon dry dirt again. “Still, it’s better than driving through the water.”

By the early evening, Aeo’s limbs could flex and his neck muscles had regained strength enough to hold his head evenly; he held still to make the bite marks in his neck and shoulder bearable. He could tap his fingers to an invisible beat, and even lightly cough. He’d eaten enough berries to quell his stomach pains, but he still felt like he could eat an entire plate of the breakfast he and Leon had shared in Rurali. Out of instinct, he bit down and moved his jaw from side to side. This is when he realized that one of his teeth, specifically one of his canines, was loose, moving a bit as his tongue pressed against it.

“Leon?” Aeo asked, his voice still weak.

“Hmm?” Leon asked, driving the wagon forwards. “Did you say something, Aeo?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

Leon pulled on Poro’s reigns, and slowed the cart to a low rumble.

“What is it?” Leon asked.

Aeo took a breath.

“My… tooth is… wobbly.”

“Your tooth?” Leon asked. “You didn’t get hit in the mouth by those wolves, did you?”

“Nuh-uh,” Aeo replied.

“Well, sounds like you’re growing up to me,” he said. “You’ll lose all your small teeth soon, I imagine.”

“When I was little, I… slipped and fell… at the inn, and knocked my two front teeth out.”

Aeo could hear Leon whince.

“Oh dear,” he said. “That must have hurt a lot. I imagine you don’t like losing teeth, then.”

“Nuh-uh,” Aeo whispered. “Harthoon… and Aristé made fun of me. Eating was hard, too.”

“I’m sorry. I remember Algus laughed at me when I lost those teeth, but probably not in the way they laughed at you. He called me the ‘Toothless Wonderchild’. And then my large teeth grew in and he called me ‘Gopher Child’. There was no winning with that one.”

“Will I get to meet Algus?” Aeo asked. From how Leon spoke of him, he sounded like a very entertaining man.

With this question, Leon fell silent for a moment.

“He, uh… He passed away. A few years ago. A few months before I left the Academy to climb Falas, actually.”

“Oh,” Aeo replied. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Leon said. “I’m sure he would have loved to meet you.”

The evening fell to night, and Leon stopped the cart to rest. Taking up the wagon space in complete immobility made Aeo a bit uncomfortable, considering it meant Leon had to find a spot off the side of the road to set up a campfire and sleep. Now able to voice his thoughts, he apologized for it as Leon applied another coating of ointment to his wounds.

“It’s no trouble at all,” Leon said. “I’m quite used to sleeping on the ground. I worry that once I climb into bed at Everspring, I’m going to endure many weeks of sleepless nights. I may not even teach next spring with all the adjustments and personal projects.”

“Your bed isn’t comfortable?” Aeo asked, wincing at the pain.

“It’s too comfortable, I’m afraid. Sleep for long enough on dirt and rocks, and you’re keen to stay that way.”

Aeo slept well that night, able to turn on his side and keep himself from falling backwards… or face first onto his injured arm. On the gray and cloudy morning of the fourth day, Aeo awoke and wiped his eyes only to realize that he could actually wipe his eyes. Though the pain in his neck grew intense, he raised both of his arms and looked at his hands. They could twist, curl, and bend. His movements felt a few milliseconds off between his brain ordering them and his body performing them, but it felt a fantastic improvement. He pulled his legs inwards, and they indeed bent towards him. Excited at the prospect of moving again, he placed his hands on the wagon floor, dug in his feet, and heaved himself upwards towards the back of the wagon to attempt walking. The excitement faded when he failed to lift his weight.

Then, a feeling dark and foreboding flooded his every thought, as if a tidal wave of desire smacked him right in the chest: his hunger doubled up upon him, ravenous and ferocious. The hunger felt as though he had been underwater for far too long without breath, and his heart beat rapidly at the very thought of eating something. His body demanded it, and it demanded it immediately.

Where is the food! Oh, behind me!

He attempted to turn around, and though his neck wound coursed through him like his own magickal fire, he managed to twist his torso around and lift his arms to uncover the food crate. Inside were dried fish and beef, fresh apples and carrots, rye bread, blueberries picked fresh found by Poro just yesterday… He grabbed whatever he could grab in his claws and stuffed it into his mouth; he didn’t even taste what he’d removed from the box first. He ate so quickly, he even forgot about his loose tooth.

An ingrained instinct in him thought to ask for Leon’s permission to eat so much. This was promptly squashed.

By the time he heard Leon and Poro stir from sleep, he’d eaten so much so fast, he developed a terrible case of hiccups. He carried on despite this, going back and forth from dried meat to fruit to bread and back again.

A few minutes later, as a piece of dry bread lumped down his gullet, another demonic sensation arose:

Water! Where is the water!

His gaze rapidly scanned the inside of the wagon, back and forth, back and forth. Then, in complete exasperation, his voice exploded.

“Leon!” he shouted as if he’d never shouted in his life. “Leon! Help, *hic* help! Help me!”

In an instant, Aeo heard a man fumbling and struggling, and then breathlessly running. When Leon appeared at the back of the cart, his hair clinging to his head in all directions and his scruffy beard unkempt, he looked horrified.

“What, what! What is it!” he cried. “What’s wrong?”

With his mouth half-full, Aeo’s senses returned.

“Uh… Uhh… *hic*…”

Leon stared at the boy as if Aeo had shape-shifted into a duck. Aeo attempted to swallow, but even that came half-heartedly.

“I, uh… can’t move.” Aeo said with a pile of food in his lap and nervous as a lamb. “I can’t, um… *hic* find the water.”

For a moment, Leon continued his stare, dumbfounded. But then his mouth turned into a grin, then a smile, and then to outright laughter.

“Ha!” Leon gasped. “Ha! I thought for sure a snake had found its way into the wagon, or you’d set everything on fire! And here you are, having breakfast without me!”

Thoroughly embarrassed, Aeo look down at the floor.

“*Hic* sorry…” he whispered.

This caused Leon to laugh harder.

“Don’t be, you silly boy!” Leon said. “I’m just glad you’re up and eating! It’s been days since you’ve had anything solid. And hiccups too! Wait just a moment, I have the water. It’s good to have you back!”