After about an hour, the little yatili and the large yatvi came back into the guest room. Aaron and Chris told me that they needed to head home, so they said goodbye and departed. Juni had lost his energy since going to Ian’s room, and soon fell asleep underneath the blanket as Charsi and I researched the map on Ian’s phone for another while.
There wasn’t much detail I could see on the map, even in the simplistic map, that would give us any indication about which direction Elder Ordi might have chosen to lead everyone. Gatherers could travel as much distance as they could carry food and water. But the greater question was if they could escort sixty inexperienced yatili through the wilderness at night with the same resources. So instead of relying solely on the map, I decided to look up some of the different food sources we had relied on up in the hills.
To my absolute pleasure, humans had already done all of the work for me: all I had to do was read and identify. They named them differently than we did. Thornberries to us became thistleberries, the wickedly-sour poisonberry became the pin cherry, and disease roots became black morels. Some of the plants and fruits were poison (as I and the gatherers knew very well), some bloomed only in specific times of the year, and I saw others I had never even seen before. Charsi pointed out the ones she knew, and she tried to explain to me the taste of the fruits and roots she recognized. Unfortunately, she compared them to yatvi foods Eliza had fed her and Juni.
“Sorry,” I told her, more often than I wanted. “I haven’t eaten that.”
She got frustrated at first. But she laughed when I pointed out one in particular. The page showed a black fruit called a currant. I recognized it immediately. I was taught to call them ‘iketsal yodsi’: ‘long night of stomach pain’. She completely agreed with the name.
“A little after meeting Eliza, she fed one to Juni and I. We both had stomach aches all night long. She thought she had poisoned us, that she was going to kill us. She cried the whole time.”
“What did Xande say?”
“He wasn’t there… at first. Then he came home. Eliza showed him everything we ate, and he actually laughed at her. He told her we weren’t going to die, but she still stayed home all week to take care of us and make sure.”
I rolled my eyes at Xande, although I admit I probably would have done the same thing.
“From then on,” Charsi said. “She always always asked Xande what she should feed us. She asked him so much that it’s a joke now. He doesn’t think it’s funny, but we do.”
“So she does feed you more than chicken nugglets.”
Charsi snorted, covering her nose with her hands in embarrassment. I cracked up immediately.
“Hah!” I leaned to rest on my back. “That got you.”
“I don’t usually do that,” she said with a sheepish smile, wiping her nose. “Don’t tell Juni. He’ll be obnoxious about it for days.”
“No promises,” I grinned, making her whine. “Hey, if it’s not too much to ask… How did you and Juni meet? Eliza told us how she met you both, but not much of what happened before that. You weren’t from the same village, were you?”
Charsi folded her arms.
“No, I’ve never lived in a village. The first time I saw Juni, he… well, he actually saved me from being hit by a tire.”
“A tire? What, a car tire?”
“I don’t think so. It was a lot bigger than that. A truck tire, or a yatvi machine tire.”
“Was it… attached to a yatvi machine?”
“Oh,” Charsi said with a chuckle. “No, it was a garbage tire, by itself. Juni and I had been living in a yatvi garbage dump for a long time. We had never seen each other before, though. Big yatvi trucks would drive through and dump off new things, and the pile would have food sometimes. But I got greedy. I didn’t check to see if the truck would come back. By the time it did, I had dug down too deep, and got myself stuck. Juni appeared out of nowhere and pulled me out just as the tire smashed down.”
I shook my head.
“Unbelievable. How old were you two?”
“Maybe… seven,” she said with a shrug. “Juni was probably nine. We lived at the garbage dump for a long time before we ever saw another yatili.”
“It must have smelled horrible. You didn’t actually live in the dump, did you?”
“No, outside it. In a gopher den.”
I raised an eyebrow at her.
“You’re not that small.”
“Well, Juni dug it out first, just to make sure nothing was home. Technically, it was his home before we shared it.”
“And where did you live before that?”
“Inside a broken metal container. I didn’t live there long, it was the place I had hid when… after my father died.”
“Oh,” I said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she said, smiling at me. “I miss him, but I think he would be happy to see how big my family is now.”
She nodded with a grin, pulling her hair behind her ear.
“My mom died last,” said a voice behind Charsi. I looked over, and there was Juni, staring at the ceiling with his hands resting behind his head. “She told me to be strong, left to find food for us both. She never came back.”
Juni looked our way.
“When I found Charsi, she cried every day for a long time. I think you were even afraid of me.”
“I was,” she admitted. “I was afraid of everything.”
“Well,” Juni said with a shrug. “We had plenty of food and water. Some of it was actually pretty good. It was hard to get, though. It was all out in the open, yeah, but there were so many rats and birds I had to fight them off to get anything. Instead, I usually just went for the sealed stuff that didn’t weigh much. Eliza calls it ‘expired food’.”
“Expired?” I asked. “Like, dead?”
“Is that what that means?” Juni shrugged again. “Yeah, I guess yatvi call it dead when they don’t think it’s good anymore. I don’t know why they think that. If it’s in a closed bag, it’s good to me.”
“Me too,” Charsi said. “Even if it’s warm when it shouldn’t be. Of course, Eliza always tells us ‘expired food’ will make us sick. It never did, though.”
“So you two spent, what, a year near a garbage dump, and you never saw another yatili in all that time?”
They both shook their heads.
“I always thought someone would find us,” Charsi said. “But we never saw anyone. Except Xande, of course.”
“I always wished we found someone who could make us both some decent clothes,” Juni said, tugging at his shirt. “It’s not like we were naked or anything. But sometimes all I had was an itchy robe with pieces of plastic…”
He pointed to his cuffs, his chest, and his head.
“…tied to me as armor. I looked so stupid. It was always really cold and uncomfortable when it rained. Winter was vyshtal ese-”
“Juni!” Charsi exclaimed. “No swearing!”
“Vaya,” I said quickly, pressing my finger to my lips.
We all looked at Ian’s face for a silent second. His light snoring didn’t change.
“Sorry,” they both whispered.
“Anyway,” I said, looking directly at Juni. “Continue. And with cleaner words.”
I expected shame from him, but there was none. He chuckled instead.
“Right. So we’re crammed inside a gopher hole, right? I’m out searching for food again. It’s in the evening, when there are fewer birds. I was whistling to myself instead of being quiet, which was pretty stupid. I’m digging through a cardboard box when something touches my shoulder. I think to myself, it has to be a bird beak, or a cat tongue, or something else terrible…”
Juni gestured dramatically.
“I freak out and dive into the garbage, screaming. I feel something grab my shirt, and it pulls me out. It’s Xande. It was hard for him to cover my mouth and stop me from running out the box with one arm, but I’m glad he did, because right outside the box was two garbage men.”
“Why was Xande at the dump?” I asked him. “He wasn’t looking for food, was he?”
“Nah,” Juni said. “He was looking for lights. Electric lights. His had gone bad.”
“I told him he could take our lights, since we didn’t need so many. He wanted to leave right away, but I begged him to see Charsi first. He finally listened to me and followed me, and after we shared some food with him, he told us to follow him and that he would find us a home.”
“What do you mean, just like that? A yatili home? Or a yatvi home?”
“I think he meant yatili at first,” Charsi said. “But when we didn’t find anyone for a long time, I think he changed his mind. It was too dangerous to keep moving. We needed somewhere to live safe, and Xande said he couldn’t keep us that way by himself.”
I scratched my forehead.
“That doesn’t sound like him at all. Why Eliza? She told us she was the one who found you.”
“She did,” Charsi said with a smile. “Xande’s plan was for us to sit on the kitchen counter for her to find us. But she came home too soon, and we were still on the floor. Xande hid. Juni screamed his head off and ran. I was the only one who stayed put.”
“I think you mean I saved you,” Juni insisted. “If I hadn’t tired Eliza out by running away, she might have grabbed you first.”
“Sure,” Charsi said with sarcasm.
“You didn’t answer my question, though,” I said. “Why Eliza?”
“She didn’t own a dog,” Juni said. “Or a cat.”
“No, it was more than that. Xande said she was special.”
“He found us a place to hide, and he spent a few days studying yatvi in their homes,” Charsi explained. “He didn’t want a home that had kids. Or animals. He said he didn’t mind if the yatvi were married, but he preferred only one yatvi learned about us. And he had to know that the yatvi was a kind person. I don’t know why he thought Eliza was kind. I’ve never really asked him.”
“Huh. Well, he was right after all.”
“Yes, he was.”
“So what was it like meeting her for the first time?”
“Do you have to ask?” Juni moaned.
“The most frightening thing I’ve ever done,” Charsi said. “Xande had only taught me a little bit of English, and Juni had no idea what she was saying.”
“I did too,” Juni responded. “I just didn’t know how to say anything back.” He turned to me, pointing at Charsi. “I don’t get how she learned English so fast. And Xande won’t tell me where he learned English. You know, though. Don’t you? Was it in your village? Who taught him? Was it you?”
I pursed my lips.
“No, it was definitely not me. I would like to avoid being punched when I see Xande again, so I don’t think I’ll tell you.”
“There’s a lot Xande won’t tell us, actually,” Charsi said. “Like about where he goes all the time. He’s a really quiet person. He acts tough in front of Eliza, but… well, I’ve seen him cry when his shoulder hurt. He cried when he talked about Aria too.”
I couldn’t imagine him like that. I’d never really seen him in private, though, so I couldn’t have known.
“Don’t tell Xande you’re telling Lenn stuff like that, Sisi,” Juni said. “He’ll stop talking to you.”
Charsi waved her hands.
“He’s stopped talking to me before. When I ask too much. So I don’t, because I care about him. He lets me help him when he’s not mad at me, so I do my best.”
“He wasn’t keeping me a secret,” I said. “He certainly doesn’t care about me enough. And if he told you about Aria and the village, it isn’t that.”
“Well, I’m not about to ask him again,” Juni said. “Last time I tried, he wrapped his arm around my neck and laughed at me. Like we were wrestling, like I hadn’t even said anything.”
Charsi and Juni both shifted their eyes towards me.
“Don’t look at me,” I told them. “He already wants to kill me. I probably couldn’t even ask the question before he’d tear my leg off and club me with it.”
Juni laughed at me, and Charsi’s nose got all scrunched up.
“I never thought there would be someone Xande would actually hurt. And Eliza. He had never pulled out his knife to hurt her before.”
“He’s hit me before, but even for him, pulling a knife seemed a little… extreme.”
“Do you think,” Charsi asked. “When Aria comes, do you think you could become friends?”
“We would be related,” I said, dreading the thought. “But that’s probably it.”
“Hmm… Not even talk?”
“Ian would have to hold you,” Juni said. “And Eliza would have to hold Xande.”
He held up two fists and made noises as if they were squawking.
“And then you could shout and scream until you liked each other!”
“I wish it worked that way.”
“It’s not how it worked with you and Ian, is it,” Charsi asked. “I can’t imagine being found by all three of those boys at once. I would have died.”
“I was too busy actually dying to be scared,” I told her, smiling. “I lost so much blood, it took me at least two weeks to be scared of Ian. And I didn’t even see Chris and Aaron a week after that.”
I pointed at Juni.
“How long did it take you to stop being nervous around Eliza?”
“Hah,” he said to the ceiling. “Who says I stopped?”
“I wasn’t lying when I told Ian that Eliza still scares me,” Charsi said. “Especially if I don’t expect to see her. She can be really quiet when she wants to.”
“She doesn’t do it on purpose, does she?”
“Just to me,” Juni said quickly. “She’ll wait until she knows it’s just me, and she’ll stomp her feet and shout ‘boo’! I hate it when she does that.”
“Ian cares too much about what I think of him,” I said. “When he teases me or scares me on accident, it’s like he regrets it. That I’ll just stop liking him.” I snapped my fingers. “Just like that.”
“That’s so weird.” Juni said. “He scared me, but I still like him.”
“That’s what I told him. I must be his brother now because I don’t think he believed me. You’ll have to tell him yourself.” I poked Charsi’s shoulder gently. “Ian really worried about you when Aaron held you. I’m glad he was holding onto me at the same time, or he might have stopped you from trying.”
Charsi watched Ian for a moment.
“I never thought in a hundred years I’d ever get to meet human boys. And all three have promised to protect us.”
“Still think they’re monsters?” I asked her.
“Just a little.”
“Meeting human boys, huh?” Juni teased. “You gonna fall in love with one?”
Charsi and I both leered at him.
“Eww, what!” Charsi swatted the words away in disgust. “No way, are you crazy?! We’re not even-! No!”
“I’ll bet you’re in love with Ian!” he sung. “I’m gonna tell him you said so!”
Charsi scooted herself towards Juni, and in a flash of frustration, smacked her brother’s shoulder. All it made him do was laugh, and he retaliated by poking Charsi in the ribs. Both of them struggled, growled, and laughed. Loudly.
“Hey, you two! Keep it down! If you wake Ian up, I’m going to-”
The movement of the hairy head that laid prone upon the pillow next to ours didn’t make a sound. Neither did the bed, not that I remember. I was looking at the two bickering children when I saw Juni’s face go cold. Then Charsi’s turned white as she gasped. I then turned, and not more than four inches away from me floated a scowling blue-green eye. It turned my stomach for a quick second before I recognized the dimple beneath it.
“Ah,” I said, pointing. “Before you say anything, I’ll remind you that you wanted to sleep in here.”
“I was sleeping,” growled the human. “But I guess I’m not anymore.”
My pleasant smile quickly passed on to him, and we both laughed. The great happy eye then passed from me to Eliza’s two troublemakers.
“Hi Charsi, hi Juni,” he whispered. “What’s up?”
Juni recovered faster.
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “Charsi wants to tell you something!”
Charsi turned and slugged her brother’s arm. It shouldn’t have surprised me that she could, but it surprised me more when Juni took it in stride.
“H-Hi Ian,” she said as she timidly turned. “How are… um, how are you feeling?”
“I’m okay,” he replied. “I kept hearing my name. Were you talking about me?”
Charsi slammed Juni’s mouth shut.
“No, no! Well, I mean, only a little, about, uh… how you’re our friend, and that we’re family now, and not-”
Juni tore her hand off.
“Ian, Charsi said that she lo-”
Charsi slammed both hands over his mouth.
“Hush!” she hissed.
Ian looked at me looking slightly confused but very amused. I just smiled back at him.
“Juni wants Charsi to say that she loves you,” I said, covering my mouth with my hand. “Isn’t that strange?”
I looked back, and saw Charsi’s face turn red. Juni, now freed of his sister’s hands, filled the room with cackling laughter.
“Lenn is on my side!” Juni shouted.
“There aren’t supposed to be sides!” Charsi shouted back, forcing her brother’s head away. She swiveled to face me, slapping the pillow. “Lenn, you’re mean! You can’t just tell Ian things like that!”
“But…” Ian said, immediately playing along. His expression turned to one of feigned sadness. “You don’t love me at all?”
Charsi sat, very visibly stunned.
“No!” she exclaimed. She skipped a beat. “Well, uh, I didn’t… I didn’t mean… Love, like a… like a cousin, and not like…”
Juni cackled all the harder. Ian’s face appeared injured by Charsi’s stammered words.
“You!” She pointed at Ian, then at me. “I… I know what you’re doing! You can’t do what I did! That’s not fair!”
Ian’s dimple returned and he smiled. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“It’s all fair,” I replied. “We’re all family now, so we’re supposed to tease each other!”
“But I don’t like being teased!”
Ian’s hand appeared from beneath his blanket and approached Charsi carefully. She attempted to stop the fingers before they reached her, but they instead took her gently by the hand.
“I know what you mean, Charsi,” he said, sounding tired. “And I’m sorry I scared you when I fought with Lenn. I only wanted to protect you from Aaron. I guess I didn’t do the right thing.”
Her wounded expression turned thoughtful.
“Oh, I…” she whispered back. “I know… and I’m, um, sorry for making you worry. You shouldn’t have to when you’re so hurt.”
Ian smiled as best he could.
“And I love all my cousins. Even Juni.”
Juni’s face scrunched like he’d eaten a whole lemon.
“Ack,” he spit, sticking his tongue out. “Ñeh serdi.”
Ian’s fingers released Charsi’s hand and flew straight to Juni. Enveloping all sides of his head, Ian gathered the boy’s long, white-blond hair and lifted it upwards. Juni yelped and shooed Ian’s hand away, smooshing his hair back into place. It got the point across without much effort.
“Ñeh! No! Now Ian’s mean!”
“Okay, kañi and kalñi, we get it. We’re all mean,” I sighed with a chuckle. I turned back. “How are you really feeling, Ian?”
“Bad enough for me to get Catherine?”
“…maybe not yet.” He pulled back to rest upon his own pillow. He then pointed at his phone before bundling his blanket up beneath his chin. “Teach me something. I’ll try not to fall asleep.”
“Can I tell Ian about how Juni and I met?” Charsi asked.
“Of course,” I replied. “Go right ahead.”
She nearly began, but she caught herself mid-breath.
“Ah, um… how do you say ‘sarefi reasar’ in English again?”
“Oh yeah. Dump. Right.”
“Dump,” Juni said in English, testing the word. “That sounds funny.”
“What about a garbage dump?” Ian asked.
“Let Charsi tell you,” I said.
Ian nodded, and Charsi began.
“That’s why I was so afraid of you,” Charsi said, now herself laying beneath the edge of the blanket. The room had grown chilly, and even I slid down and sat close to Charsi to warm up beneath it. “Every yatvi I ever saw would have killed me. Or that’s what I thought. I only knew Eliza, and I didn’t want to be scared again like Eliza scared me.”
“I’m sorry, Charsi,” Ian mumbled, laying his head upon the flat bed instead of the pillow. “I didn’t know.”
“And I want to think I’m like Xande,” Juni said. “That I’m big and strong. But… I’m not. Not really.”
I patted Charsi’s back.
“You two are much braver than you think. I never went through anything like that growing up.”
Ian’s eye closed.
“Me neither. I feel like such a loser. I can’t even do simple things like go to school without ending up like… this.”
He placed his hand directly upon his broken cheek, just light enough to feel the pain.
“But you have a mom and dad that love you,” Juni said.
“And you’re a hero,” I added. “All you have to do is look at my scar. You knew just what you had to do to save my life.”
“I’m not a hero.” His eye looked back at me. “If I was, other people would like me.”
“Well, we like you.”
Juni and Charsi agreed.
“You know what I mean, though,” Ian said. “I don’t have any friends. Not even at church. I want to stay home for the rest of my life where people actually care.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” I chuckled. “But you know you can’t do that. You showed me that there’s so much out in the world to learn. What if you go out there, come back, and teach me everything you learn? Then I can teach it to Aria and my child, and Charsi and Juni? Who knows, we might even find other yatili who want to learn too.”
“Yeah!” Juni said. “You could be a teacher like Lenn and teach a whole room of yatili!”
Ian gently smiled.
“You think there’s enough of you out there?”
“To fill a room?” I looked at Charsi, and she shrugged. “There has to be.”
“Are we going to learn from you and Ian?” Charsi asked. “Before all that, I mean.”
“You’ll have to ask Eliza,” I said. “I’m not sure what she has in mind. Do you really want to learn from a cripple and a goofy kañi?”
Charsi laughed along with her brother.
“I live with Goofy every day,” she said plainly, throwing her finger towards Juni. “I don’t mind.”
“And I live with kalvalin idi,” Juni replied, pointing back at her. “I’m used to it.”
“What does that mean?” Ian asked. “’Girl’ something.”
“Smart weird girl,” I said.
“I’m smart, not weird,” Charsi insisted. “You’re the one who can’t do math.”
Juni slapped the blanket.
“I can too!” He paused just long enough to make everyone doubt. “Well, Eliza just makes it confusing with big numbers!”
“I’m bad at math too,” Ian said. “I hope Lenn knows.”
“Uh,” I said. “I don’t do numbers. Maybe Eliza will be a guest teacher.”