They hadn’t walked far when they entered a clearing where a pebbly path began. Above them twilight’s sky displayed the incipient appearance of the stars, the universal signs of existence, proof for Kyle that he was still in the world. A little further in the distance stood a tiny, gray, two-story cottage all alone in the clearing, like something out of a fairytale. Thin wisps of smoke puffed out of the chimney, spiraling up into the blue-black sky. A narrow porch extended from the front door on either side of which two, young elm trees grew. Behind the trees, the outline of a garden took shape, obscured by the shadows cast by the house in the dim light of the moon. A white fence, interwoven with yellow shrub roses and their thorny vines, enclosed the house in a tight square. A darkness shrouded the warmth of the cottage. Nevertheless there was a potential for something good to come from this place. All it needed was a human touch, something to break the bell jar placed above.
“Thrilling, isn’t it?” Noirah muttered beside him, kicking a stone in her path.
“That’s your home?”
“That is the house in which I happen to reside, yes.”
“It’s funny, I almost expected that you’d lead me to some crazy, giant bird’s nest in a tree where you reign over forest goblins as their fairy queen.” He was laughing; she was not.
“No, sadly, no forest goblins,” she answered, “I’m just a regular person who lives in a regular person’s house and does regular person’s things until I die a regular person’s death.” She swung her hands as she took some large, lazy, loping steps. “Wouldn’t mind being a goblin queen, though. To have minions. Can always dream, right?”
She gave a wistful smile that wasn’t born of happiness, but from a deep understanding and complete acceptance of what the past few years had taught her: nothing happened the way you wanted, even if you wanted it with all of your heart. One day she would disappear from this world and it’d scarcely be marked by the ripple that she so desired to cause. Her horde of goblins would have remembered her in their singular devotion. She never knew she wanted her own troupe of goblins before, but now she couldn’t imagine ever not wanting them.
“Nope,” she sang out with a sharp plosive p at the end of the word, “Nary a goblin, but can’t say there aren’t monsters.” She leaned into him, playfully bumping him with her shoulder. “Once there were no people here. Frightful things we are.”
With a biting laugh, she skipped ahead to the house. Kyle followed a little more slowly, scanning his surroundings. All around him the forest loomed; tall branchy arms encroached into the tiny open space. What did their shadows hide? What sort of monsters lurked? The breeze snuck up behind him, blowing on his neck, whispering words of an unknown language into his ear. Shaken, Kyle hurried after Noirah.
Mr. Tillard was working in the garden, as he had promised. When he caught sight of the two teens, he slowly stood and greeted Noirah with an uncertain smile. Kyle stood behind her unnoticed.
“Noirah, home a bit late, aren’t you? We were getting worried that you ran into some trouble,” her father said.
“Hm, were we?” she asked disinterestedly, letting a hand brush over a tall sunflower. With her ring finger lingering on a petal, she gazed up at her father with a curiously knowing look.
His eyebrows twitched in a tic. “Suppose so, yes. Thought you’d come join me, but when I took a peek into your room, you had disappeared.” He paused, as her face didn’t soften. “I do get worried you know.”
“My heart breaks for you,” she drawled, and pointed lazily to Kyle, “That there’s Kyle. Looks like I found myself a grifter who seems intent on stealing my girlish virtue with his manly wiles.” With that she slithered off and leaned against a post of the porch, smirking as she watched Kyle’s flustered face turn a shade of red.
“What? No! I would never --”
“Kyle? --” Mr. Tillard questioned.
“Walter. Then who’s Kyle?”
“No, no. Kyle. Kyle Walters. That’s my full name and I swear that I would never touch virtue with wile, no hers and not before marriage. Heck maybe I’d even wait a few months after that. I really honor virtue, sir, and really have no wile. So yup, that’s me. Kyle Walters, a regular, hands-off kind of guy. I also once volunteered at a soup kitchen.”
Noirah snorted; Kyle gave her a bemused, confused glare, silently begging the question ‘why would you say that,’ to which she shrugged with a curved brow that replied, ‘why not.’
In the intervening silence, Mr. Tillard stepped in to make sense of the situation that was still unclear to him. All he saw was that his daughter had brought home a boy, though a seemingly harmless one so far as he could tell, but nonetheless a strange boy that he did not know.
“Right, Kyle Walters. Frank Tillard. Prefer that the youngsters call me Mr. Tillard. Do like to encourage respect for one’s elders amongst the younger ilk.” He cleaned the dirt from his hands on his pant legs and extended one out. “Pleased to meet you, lad.”
Kyle returned the gesture, “Pleased to meet you too, sir, Mr. Tillard. I’m Kyle, Kyle Walters.”
“Yes, you said that. No need to be repetitious.” The hand-shake ended and Mr. Tillard proceeded to stare hard at Kyle. “Now, who exactly are you?” Before Kyle could answer, Mr. Tillard lifted up a finger. “Yes, I know: Kyle Waters. That’s the problem. Don’t know any Kyle Walters around these parts, no Walters at all.” He scratched his head, reading lists of names in his mind, “Do think I recall a Walters once, long ago. Perhaps from the city? Can’t quite place it right now. You must understand, this isn’t exactly a place where strangers wander. Nice, quiet place this is.”
“Isn’t exactly much of a place at all,” Noirah retorted coldly.
The man’s face fell but only for the briefest of moments. The contrast from a deep resignation to a manic cheer startled Kyle. Though quick, the change was drastic, made grotesque by the mix of the moon and passing shadows across his face. Whatever was here between these two within the clasp of the house felt wrong.
“Yes, well, it’s a place though, a place to live. That’s all a home has to be, isn’t it?” He smiled congenially at Kyle, “Now, young man, please answer the question. Whence do you come?”
Kyle looked to Noirah and wondered how much of what she said had been true. Would this man think he was crazy? Was this a giant game on her part? Did she maybe actually have goblins? Kyle bit his lip, and shyly, quietly said, “I’m, I guess, well, Noirah told me, so maybe I’ll sound dumb. But I’m not trying to disrespect, if this sounds made up --”
“It’s not made up,” Noirah breezily chimed in. “I told him that he’s from the Outside because he is.”
The words so casually spoken had their desired effect. Mr. Tillard grew serious. Kyle took a step back as Mr. Tillard leaned in. Kyle was no longer a boy, but a stranger, a threat. Even Noirah was taken aback. She wanted to shock, but she couldn’t have imagined that her father was capable of such intent. She only knew him as the man who tried to play father, never the man who had acquired enough political sway to warrant a conspiracy against him. As a father, she found him rather pliable and ingratiatingly accommodating to her whimsy; as a man, she never knew him.
“That can’t be, Noirah,” Mr. Tillard answered in a stern tone, his eyes not leaving Kyle’s face. “No, that cannot be. No one is allowed in or out anymore. That all stopped some time ago. So you, young man, you owe us some answers. Like what sort of business do you have here with my daughter and family? What is it you want? Did you hear that the Tillards had resettled and decided to play some ruse on us? Intrude on our peace? Is that it?”
“No!” Kyle insisted, “I didn’t know that you resettled, and I like to keep the peace. I mean, I’m like you; I thought Noirah was playing a joke on me. Haha,” he laughed weakly, awkwardly shrugging his shoulders. “I wouldn’t. I can’t. I couldn’t. I don’t know. I never even meant to come here. Sorry?”
His earnestness softened Mr. Tillard to a degree. Kyle continued, “But I am from where Noirah said, I guess. Judging from your reaction this is a real thing.” Mr. Tillard nodded solemnly. “Wait, I can prove that I’m an Outsider!”
He reached into his bag. Mr. Tillard sucked in a breath. Kyle was shocked that he, of all people, could make someone else afraid. His hand rifled through his bag. He knew that it was in there. And then his hand found his wallet which held his ID. If this was another world, then his state and city didn’t exist here. His sweaty fingers struggled to yank the little card out, but eventually Kyle succeeded. “Here, this should be proof. That’s my picture and my address.” He held it out to Mr. Tillard and pointed at the words. “That’s all my information.”
Mr. Tillard, having snatched it out of his hands, looked it over. His eyes grew wide. Deep wrinkles settled on his brow. His thumb brushed the little piece of plastic.
“See, there. That’s my name. That’s me. I know, my hair looks different. I had cut it before the picture. But it’s me. Hair grows and it did. But I’m Kyle --”
“Yes, yes, we all know, Kyle, Kyle Walters. Kyle Walters from Farmingdale, Prima Terra. And hair grows here too. My faculties are keen enough to have deduced that you remained the same person despite the growth of your hair,” Mr. Tillard muttered exasperated, waving a dismissive hand at the boy.
Noirah had gone to her father’s side, and grabbed the ID from his hand. Her eyes sparkled with excitement. She didn’t know what her father knew, so her delight at the sight of something from the Outside had no tempering force. Her fingers ran over the lamination, as she shook her head with childlike wonder. Never had she held something from that world and Kyle was completely made up of it. All of him had existed on the Outside and had held this Outside thing in the Outside world, and now she held it.
“Amazing,” she breathed out, “this is bona fides.” She handed the card back to her father. “What do you think?”
Her father blinked. It had been some time since he heard her speak to him like that. He wasn’t the enemy, for now, but someone who could help her, her dad. He thought about putting his arm around her, but knew that the gesture would spoil it. Instead he slapped the top of his thighs and put on a false air of jollity.
“I think a great deal of it. Best place for me to start is the library, do a little research before dinner. I’m certain I have something that might be of aid.” He grimaced. “Wish I had the old library.”
“But you don’t,” Noirah sang out bitterly, as though twisting a dagger in his gut. She drifted away from him back to the porch.
For all of Noirah’s anger and distance, Mr. Tillard managed a sad smile and warm eyes for his daughter. “No, no I don’t. Don’t have a lot anymore. But we make do.” He patted Kyle on the shoulder. “Trust me. I can do right by you.” His hand lingered for a moment in a paternal fashion, “I can fix this and get you home.”
The air grew silent around them and the night grew darker. Above them the stars began to shine more brightly, making a feeble attempt to fight off the darkness of the dying woods, which slowly crept inch by inch toward the house. The vacuous dome of the world above made Kyle feel empty. He looked from Tillard to Tillard and wondered what effect the emptiness had upon them. He could see them both right there in front of him, but neither appeared together. With each passing blink one came into focus and the other blurred away. Kyle only ever felt more solid when his mother stood beside him. He wished she was here right now. Boy, would she get a kick out of this.
“Well, it’s getting chilly. Suppose we should go inside,” Mr. Tillard remarked. He noticed that he hadn’t removed his hand from Kyle’s shoulder. He gave an abashed smile. “You’re welcome to stay here as long as need be.”
“Thanks,” Kyle replied sincerely.
Mr. Tillard nodded, then turned to head inside. Noirah watched her father with cold eyes as he made his way up the stairs and flinched when he stopped in front of her, uncomfortably close.
“If you need me, you know where I’ll be,” he said.
She looked away from him and crossed her arms. “I won’t, so it doesn’t matter.” Once he departed, she released a pent up breath. Then she turned her aggression onto Kyle. “Are you planning on standing there all night or are you coming in?”
“Coming in,” Kyle replied docilely, hopping up the stairs to follow her inside.
When he stepped past the threshold, he nearly tripped over a pile of boxes. There were boxes everywhere. He took another step and peeked into a room off the entrance. In the dim light seeping through the window he found even more boxes scattered amidst the haphazardly placed furniture. Were they moving in or abandoning the place? Only a crooked-hanging portrait of the family taken some years ago, based on the youthful appearance of Noirah, decorated the room. In the portrait her father appeared more vibrant than he had in person; her mother stood out as a beautiful, stern statue. Noirah, however, had some faraway look in her eyes. Her gaze drifted past Kyle’s shoulders to some point on the horizon. At any moment the girl might wander out of the picture and drift to the place that she saw. She remained alive with the captured images of long-lost parents beside her.
He felt Noirah next to him. “Nice, huh?”
“Nothing but a pretty picture painted on air.” Her right arm extended along the archway to the room. She rested her head against it, mirroring the distant gaze of the painting. Her foot reached out and nudged a box. “Can’t take a step without tripping on one of these. Becomes just as much a part of the house as anything here, maybe more so.”
“You guys just move?”
“Nope,” she answered, but was no more forthcoming than that. She turned so that her back pressed against the wall. “Going to be here forever.” She groaned as she heard her mother’s clacking heels approach from the kitchen, if this woman really was her mother. Noirah sometimes doubted it.
“Noirah, you’re home,” Mrs. Tillard said, once she turned the corner.
Mrs. Tillard was a greater piece of art in the flesh than she was in the portrait. There was something timeless about her face: her age was lost in a nostalgia for her sublime past and foreboding of things that could be. She was tall and lean with snowy white skin and hair so blond that it was nearly white. Her face held less lines than Mr. Tillard, but they appeared deeper. In each broken seam shown the hopes that she had in the beginning and around the scars lingered the residue of their death: a terrible mosaic of desire and despair. Her eyes were an icy blue, two dead stars in a frozen face. She could look right through a person, leaving them with a chill down their spine. Her lips were thin and pink and settled in neither a frown nor a smile, which made her look vaguely disinterested. Only hidden away in her lab would Mrs. Tillard, former head of the science department of the University, show any passion. Her eyes would soak in every object, her mind would burn in toil at every problem. Noirah, as a child, would enjoy sneaking in and watching her mother at work. For a few minutes she was reminded that her mother was a human capable of love. In these past two years, Noirah wondered if she had been mistaken.
“I see you’ve brought a guest,” Mrs. Tillard said. Her lips barely moved as she forced out each word by sheer will. Her voice dropped and in a threatening manner hissed, “Wonderful.”
“He’s not a guest, mother. He’s my very dear friend so please could you treat him as such. In fact, I think that I love him” Noirah smirked at Kyle, snaked her hand into his hair and began to play with his locks. Kyle, in response, made an attempt to smack Noirah’s hand away and grimaced apologetically at the unmoved shade standing in front of him. She didn’t seem to see him.
“Noirah, no one is amused and I really haven’t the time nor patience at the moment.” Mrs. Tillard’s voice raised slightly at the end, but the real force came from the tangible strain of each word, as though they were plucked from a violin which had been drawn too tightly.
Noirah, on the other hand, played her tune like an aficionado, “’I’m really amused, so that’s at least one person ensnared in my web of whimsy. You can’t argue against the math; it never lies unlike people.”
Her mother tilted her head towards Kyle, but made no other attempt to recognize him, “And just who is he, this love of yours?”
“Him? Kyle. Kyle Walters, to be exact. I found him in the woods,” she answered gleefully
“Bringing home strays now.”
“Better than some of the filth you used to bring home when dad --”
“I’m not a stray,” Kyle stated meekly, lifting his hand like he was answering a question in class. His words were overpowered by their own.
“Do not insinuate things, young lady. That’s not --”
“Is insinuating quite so bad as --”
“I can go,” Kyle offered.
“No, no, that would be rude,” Mrs. Tillard said robotically, though it certainly felt like an invitation to see himself out.
“Where’d you go, huh? Back out there? You’re staying.” Noirah grabbed his arm, just in case he felt like making an escape.
“I’m certain his parents would like him back,” Mrs. Tillard retorted.
“Yeah good parents tend to want their kids, but he can’t go home because he’s from the Outside.”
Her mother stopped and stared hard at her daughter. The words in her eyes never made it to her mouth, instead she answered, “I repeat: do not play games, Noirah.”
Noirah too paused, looking slightly disappointed, almost hurt. But after eighteen years, she never let it get her down for too long and so she jumped right back into the ring.
“I’m not. Just look!” Noirah reached into Kyle’s bag with no regard for his privacy. She didn’t care what she found, all she needed was something foreign. Her hand grabbed a cold, plastic object and yanked it out. It looked sufficiently Outsidey. She thrust it in her mother’s face. “There! This thing is from out there.” She flung out her free hand, pointing to his far away world.
“It’s a phone,” Kyle aided.
“Really?” Noirah brought it right in front of her eyes. She glanced up at him, “This here is a phone? How does it work? It’s so tiny and there’s no cord. But I think Uncle Sal mentioned something --”
“That proves nothing. You could find someone selling one of these novelties on the streets of the capital,” her mother refuted.
“Yeah?” Noirah asked, holding it out in the palm of her hand, teasing her mother with its proximity. She knew that the woman would want to study it, take it apart and scrutinize the pieces. So far from her work, the woman’s mind ached for something worthy of her attention. Just as Noirah noticed her mother’s hand twitch with the impulse to grab the phone, she shut her own and drew it close.
“To tell you the truth, mother, I don’t really care what you believe. Father trusts me and that’s all that matters.” The girl put the phone up to ear with a little shake, “Just give us a call for dinner; we’ll be up in my room discussing things.” She gave a cold smile and dropped the phone back into his bag.
“Don’t you dare bring him up there alone. You don’t know what he might do,” her mother ordered. Kyle felt his spine freeze; Noirah was unaffected. She began to walk up the stairs with Kyle’s hand in one of her own, dragging him along. “Noirah, he could -- “
Noirah stopped on the third stair, thankfully releasing his hand.
“Kyle? I don’t expect that Kyle could hurt a fly.” She peered down at her mother, her left hand caressing the banister, just as a cat’s paw might toy with the tail of a captured mouse. Her voice grew low and dangerous. “I, on the other hand, I’d pluck off all its wings and watch iy shrivel away until there was nothing left but the pale corpse of the woman that she was -- I mean, the fly, a pale corpse of the fly that it was.”
A flash of grief appeared in her mother’s eyes, so startling a sight that even Noirah had the good sense to look somewhat ashamed. But after so much time, it was difficult to find sympathy. Her mother had made a choice a long time ago and only now did she attempt to be a mother, but only because there was nothing else to do and her child was always there. Noirah, however, was too old to want her anymore, not even when she did. The child made her choice as well.
“Fine, Noirah,” her mother said in a cool, even tone, “Go upstairs and I’ll call you for dinner.” She turned and headed back down the hall. “Just go.”
Noirah didn’t, not immediately. She leaned over the banister with her chin resting on the crook of her right arm. Her eyes followed the trail her mother left. Kyle didn’t know what to do. His mom’s solution would have been a hug, but that didn’t feel right. He walked up one step and reached out to touch Noirah’s hand. She noticed and snatched it away.
“Let’s go,” she finally snapped, not sparing him a second look. Kyle hurriedly chased after her and followed her to a room at the end of a dark, narrow hallway. She flipped on a light and ushered him in, closing the door behind her.
Noirah’s room seemed to be from another house. It was clean and tidy; the furniture was few and functional. The small table next to the bed, which was crisply made and covered with a colorful, hand-made quilt, held a plain lamp with a blue lampshade and a book. At the opposite end of the room was a large window, covered with a sheer blue curtain. To one side of the window sat Noirah’s ash-wood desk, a prized possession that her grandfather had bequeathed to her. An intimidatingly massive bookshelf had been placed on the other side. Each book had a well-worn spine. The walls were stark white marked only by a few certificates hanging above a dresser next to the door. There was nothing especially personal about the room, not unless you knew what each thing meant. The few objects, which had been placed with meticulous care, were muted. Noirah didn’t need a room to talk for her, she was loud enough herself, at least about the things that she wanted to be heard.
“So that’s my family,” she said lightly, displaying another mercurial change of demeanor. She walked across the room and took her place in the chair at her cluttered desk. Papers, books, and writing utensils were scattered throughout the worn desktop. A little, stuffed, ragged bear, who lost an ear many years before in a freak tea party accident, sat in the back corner as a companion to her work. That desk was closest thing to home that Noirah had.
“You can go ahead and make yourself comfortable.”
Kyle turned, let his bag drop down to the floor and sat down on her bed, testing its bounciness, only to find that it was stiff as a board.
“So,” Noirah began, crossing her legs and staring at him clinically, “tell me about the Outside.”
“What do you want to know?” he asked.
“Everything!” she exclaimed, throwing her arms in the air. “Absolutely everything. Ah, the gods.” She fell back and melted into the support of her chair. “It’s all I ever dreamed about growing up. Uncle Sal would regale me with tales when I was younger. It seemed so amazing; the sheer amount of information that’s available and the cities and buildings, and the airplanes! Everything. It’s all out there and I’m stuck here in a stupid swamp land, while the fairytale drifts away.” Her head fell back and she muttered, “Even if things settle down in the kingdom, I can’t escape the Tillard name. They’ll never let me go. But,” she perked up and grinned at Kyle, “I’ve got you now. Now you can regale me with the misadventures of Kyle Walters. Tell me who is Kyle, Kyle Walters?”
Kyle collapsed onto the bed, staring up at the blank, white ceiling. It looked a lot like him, he thought.
“No one special,” he answered.
“Ah, that’s probably true, but I’m interested in the mundane so long as it’s housed in the majesty of your world,” she jested, throwing herself on the bed next to Kyle. She leaned on her side with her head propped up by her hand and looked over. He turned his head and saw her smiling queerly. “You’ll only ever hear me say this once, so appreciate it, but pleeeease. Be a pal, Kyle!” She reached over and shook his arm like an impatient child seeking attention.
“Okay. Okay. I live in Farmingdale and I’m eighteen -- “
“Yeah, I saw all that on your identification card. Who are you?” she insisted.
It felt like writing his personal essay for college applications all over again. ‘Kyle,’ his guidance counselor had lectured, handing back his third draft, ‘you’re not saying anything that a thousand other kids aren’t writing, the same kids who are vying for the very same spot as you, but with much better grades. What makes you unique? What truth is important to you?’ Kyle used to have to jab his thigh with a pencil to keep from laughing every time she spouted out her guidance counselor spiel. Regardless he spent a whole weekend trying to devise a portrait of himself. When he returned a few days later, the woman smiled at him. ‘This is your truth, Kyle.’ That time he had snickered.
“Well I was just finishing high school and getting ready for college with my best friend Dani. I still can’t believe I got accepted somewhere. Actually I got accepted to more than one school. I guess I’ll go, if I get back. But, uh, I mean, who am I? I’m really my mother’s son. It’s just me and her against the world. My dad left before I was born. She’s probably my real best friend, but better cause she’s my mom. When I was a kid, she used to come up with all this fun stuff to do that was real simple, but I got a kick out of it. Better than a million toys. I guess we didn’t have a lot of money. This one day, she came running into my room -- I had a rough day at preschool or something. Sometimes you don’t know that you’re different until you meet other people who have the things you don’t -- and she told me she had discovered this magical place in the woods, just for the two of us. I hesitated at first, but I let her take my hand and drag me off.
“When we got there, just in our backyard, the woods start back there -- you know, she had once told me the woods were the reason she wanted the house -- something felt different. That day it felt special, maybe because she told me it was magic and maybe because I believed her and with her that was usually enough. She sat me down on her lap and began to tell some wild, funny, made-up stories about adventures she had. I don’t remember them, but I remember being happy and so was she. I remember that, her face. I remember the happiness. Then it became our thing: if I was sad, we would go there and tell stories or sometimes she would read to me.
“When I got older, I’d go there and she would always eventually come along, knowing that the one thing that I didn’t need was to be alone. That’s where I was today. That’s probably the first place she looked when I didn’t come home. Right now, she’s probably there and the last thing she needs is to be alone and that’s exactly what she is and I can’t do anything. I can’t be there for her, the way she always is for me. I just don’t want her to be sad and think I left her. I want her to be happy because she should be because she’s amazing.”
His throat tightened, and his neck reddened when he saw Noirah watching him.
“You love your mother a lot,” Noirah observed.
“Yeah,” he answered. He looked down and traced a square of the quilt. “So, you and your parents –”
“Obviously get along swimmingly,” she cut him off. “So do you use a computer a lot?”
“Pretty much all the time.” He took his cue and dropped the subject. He couldn’t tell if she did it for his benefit or hers. “That phone you took from me is kind of like a computer. I can go online with it.”
“Online? That’s the thing where -- oh, Uncle Sal mentioned it -- it translates all the information floating around and puts it in the computers.” She shook her head in disbelief, “That little thing? Really? Not here, of course, but there, on the Outside. No online here, though rumor has it some money has been invested in such an experiment. Mostly in the Western Realm. I mean in certain places we have things kind of like computers, but not like yours. It was easier when our researchers could travel over for schooling.”
She lifted herself and leaned over Kyle, intent on getting her hands on that phone/computer contraption thing once more. Her body rested atop his as she reached over the edge of the bed. Once her hand gripped the bag’s strap, she realized that she had placed them in a rather precarious situation. Before removing herself, she looked down at his face.
“Don’t mind if I climb over you, do you?” she asked.
“Uh, no, guess not,” he stuttered out, minding a little.
She lightly tapped him on the nose, “Aces, pal.”
She sat on the edge of her bed and once more rifled through his bag, ignoring most of its contents in her single-minded drive, until she once more found his phone.
She gazed at it for a moment, flipping it over, “This here goes onto your internets? But it’s so small. It fits in my hand. My books are bigger than this!” Her mouth gaped in sheer amazement at the magic of ingenuity.
He chuckled, taken aback that anyone could be impressed by his relic of a phone. “The internet, yeah.” He sat up next to her and took it out of her hands. “Let me show you how to turn it on.” He pressed the on-button, but nothing happened, “Huh, it should be charged.”
“Your trip over probably drained it.” She frowned. “That’s too bad; I wanted to see one of these things. Uncle Sal --”
This time Kyle interrupted her, “Uncle Sal saw one when, I assume, he came over to the Outside when people could do that, which they can’t anymore. Got it. But how? How does any of this work? How come you guys know stuff about us and I don’t know anything about this? And how did I get here? I mean that technically, how?”
She turned herself so that she half-faced him, her knees nearly knocking his, and grabbed his hand, manipulating it so that it was open flat, looking ready to high-five. “You are from here, the Outside” she said, indicating his hand, then lifting her own, “and this, here, is my world.” She brought her hand parallel to his so that their palms were facing each other. “Between them, there’s a portal, or a gateway, that can link them at a point in each of their respective worlds.” She moved her index finger so that it touched the tip of Kyle’s finger. “Now, if this gateway is opened, a person can travel between.” Before Kyle could ask the question on the tip of his tongue, she cut in, “It’s all science and magic, really. I can’t explain the how. The whole interdimensional travel thing is shrouded in mystery. Our founders thought it best if they built a cult around the portal and there’s this whole religious vow of silence for those who do know the secrets; although my mom probably figured out a good deal about it, but she’s too spiteful to share. Regardless the holy realm -- don’t you love it, holy realm? -- in which the gateway is situated, is far from where you were found. It’s just past the Boundaries: that much we all know. So very peculiar.”
She let her hand fall from his and sighed. “You know, this was a grand experiment to get back to some human origin, man’s Golden Age. Like a new place could make men good; like all men needed was a new start. But it’s not the place; it’s the man. Can start a hundred new worlds and they’ll all come to this if people come in and taint it.
“I’d never have left your world, if I had the choice. It might not be perfect, but it offers so much more. We, my people, mostly travelled there for the technology and the books, for research, that made the effort worthwhile, but some people went for bigger reasons. I’d go for those things, for the adventure, the excitement; I’d want to experience everything that I’m missing.” She looked over at Kyle. “It’s so big over there. You can’t imagine how big it seems to us.”
Kyle nodded silently. It felt smaller knowing that there was so much more out there. “And now no one can go between?”
She shrugged, playing with a piece of hair. “No. Not with what’s been happening. We don’t want weapons sneaking over.” Noirah grew silent. She stood up and paced, ruminating on another unspoken problem. Kyle watched, wondering what could be going on in her head; why did she look so distressed when he was the one who was in this huge mess. She finally stopped in front of her window and, drawing back the curtain, looked out with her back to Kyle. “Yes, it is very curious that you should be included in our number. It’s one thing for us to go out, another rarer thing for an Outsider to be let in,” She flopped herself back on to her bed, and sprawled out on her back. She looked up at him from her position. “Quite a conundrum you’ve found yourself in, one which I can’t quite wrap my head around. Never heard of anything like this, except in stories. That won’t help us.”
“Of course!” Kyle slapped his legs in a ‘eureka’ moment. It was as though the answer had been staring him in the face this whole time. How could he have been so stupid to have missed the only obvious conclusion anyone could arrive to in such a situation? A dream, it had to be. That’s how all the stories finished: the characters realized that they had been having a super vivid dream! Really now! How could this be anything other than some terrible dream? Other worlds and insides and outsides? The only logical answer in all the illogical was that he sat in a dreamland. Wasn’t even really that bad of a dream so far.
Noirah groaned next to him with her eyes closed. “This isn’t a dream, you moron.” She opened her eyes and shot him a wry look, “So just get that thought out of your head. I imagine it’s so lonely in there with no other thought friends.”
Kyle frowned. Wouldn’t it be just like his dream to have someone there to set him completely off-course? Before he could pursue these thoughts further, a pillow made hard contact with his head. His hand shot up, rubbing the spot of impact, as he gave Noirah an accusatory glare.
“I needed to prove that you weren’t dreaming. I had no other options,” she said innocently, placing the pillow behind her own head and nestling into it. “Pain indicates reality.”
“You enjoyed it,” Kyle retorted, bending his neck back and forth to make sure there was no lasting damage.
“Naturally. Now quiet, I need to think,” she commanded and closed her eyes in quiet contemplation.
With Noirah otherwise occupied, Kyle began to explore the room further. He stood up and perused the certificates on the wall. The first declared her forensics champion, another spelling bee champ. A few others were for overall academic honors; one certificate applauded her success in finishing a math program at the University. The one hung in the center commemorated a victory in a three-legged race. She shared that honor with one Felicity Sterne. It seemed so out of place among her many other achievements. Perhaps that was a thing here? Earth had football; Panchaea maybe had three-legged races. Europe did like soccer.
Kyle then skimmed the top of the sparse dresser and picked up a frame from the back corner. It was picture of Noirah and another young girl. The picture hadn’t been taken too long ago, but before the point when Noirah assumed that real happiness was a myth. Her smile was wide, captured in a candid moment of unencumbered joy. Her arm was clasped around the shoulder of a blonde girl, who was bent over in laughter, but whose blue eyes gazed through the camera’s lens right at Kyle. His finger brushed the glass as he attempted to push back a stray strand of hair that had fallen in her face. The picture vibrated in its life, one page in one story of carefree youthful days.
“Look at you. Look at her,” Kyle said on an exhalation of breath. Noirah opened her eyes and the blood drained from her face when she saw him holding that photo which she never had the heart to throw out.
“Look all you want: she’s dead,” Noirah said curtly. Her insides felt cold. The photo held a part of her past, the very best part, the part that she couldn’t remember.
Kyle carefully put the photo back down. His face grew red. Even in the simplest matters he somehow managed to put his foot in his mouth. “I’m sorry,” Kyle blubbered out.
Noirah flipped onto her stomach and looked up at him. “So am I.”
“I probably shouldn’t be poking around like it’s my room,” Kyle said, looking sadly at the other girl in the picture. He could have been in love with her, the way she smiled at him.
“Feel free. I don’t hide my secrets out in the open.” She stood up, brushed off her skirt and headed to the door. “Now, I do believe that it’s time for dinner.”
“How do --”
Before Kyle could finish his question, a voice from downstairs rang out, calling them down. He looked at her inquisitively.
“Same time every evening,” she answered, passing through the doorway, “Nothing ever changes here.”
The next time that Kyle went to the dentist, if he ever did again, he would keep this dinner in the forefront of his mind to make the ordeal more bearable. Yes, this meal at this table had proven to be less pleasant than getting his teeth cleaned, and mind you he had sensitive gums. Mr. Tillard’s manic energy combined with Noirah’s moodiness, which manifested itself in violent attacks against her steamed vegetables, and Mrs. Tillard’s pathological politeness drove Kyle to squirm in his chair with tentative smiles at the white wall behind the shoulder of the head of the household. He missed his home. Yeah, maybe he and his mom weren’t the ideal family in a picture, but their dinners were full of life and fun. Tonight, she would be sitting there alone, probably dying with worry. Why did he have to think about that? He couldn’t take another bite, he felt so sick. Mrs. Tillard noticed.
“This is why I don’t want company over. I’m not good at any of this. I’m not a hostess; I’m not a cook. I shouldn’t be in this house. I should be back home, in the labs, doing my work.” Mrs. Tillard put her head in her hands, looking near tears. The small cracks that were appearing all over dinner were finally becoming chasms. Kyle felt the urge to do something, but this wasn’t his family. Noirah remained motionless in her chair like a stone, staring straight ahead, her lips pursed in annoyance. Mr. Tillard simply looked down at his plate, moving around his food.
With his eyes still downcast, he muttered demurely, “Now, dear. This is no place for crying. It is the dinner table.”
“Oh yes, of course, you’re right. Why spoil the illusion in your head? No, we’re perfect. I’m so happy out here amongst hicks pretending to be a housewife instead of back in the capital continuing my research on the conversion of mined minerals into energy. I imagine by now Nathaniel is taking full credit for my work -- all those notes that I was forced to leave behind. But no, here we are so happy, happy.”
“Darling, please,” Mr. Tillard begged, his voice weary and strained. It wasn’t the first time that he had heard this complaint. The deepened lines on his forehead told the story of the home’s stresses, the constant loop of grievances playing over and over, never ending.
“Please what, Frank? When I asked you to please shut your mouth, did you? No, you just kept talking. At least this is just some family matter within our walls. I’m not --”
“Shut up!” Noirah shouted, standing up. Her chair toppled over behind her. Neither of her parents looked at her. When they continued to ignore her, and when Noirah noticed that Kyle was crawling in his skin, she ducked her head, a slight blush gracing her white cheeks, and spoke in a low voice, “Please shut up. You’re upset darling, little Kyle.”
As she was retrieving her chair to sit down once more, Kyle jumped in to try and salvage the night, “I think it’s been a lovely meal, for real, honest. I just have things going on in my head. That was all. Not the food, that was good. Just my head and thinking, that’s all. The food was delicious. Sorry.”
“Thank you, Kyle. But you needn’t say anything that isn’t true to spare my feelings.” Mrs. Tillard attempted to speak the words kindly, but they blew through him like a frosty breeze. Kyle wished that he hadn’t even given the compliment.
“Yes, well, now that we’ve performed a travesty of a family meal, perhaps we should move on to discuss Kyle’s dilemma,” Noirah suggested harshly, also shoving her food aside. “He’s been apprised of the basic facts and I think the only course of action would be to go to the king.”
“He should know about this,” Mr. Tillard agreed, “He’d be keen to investigate the matter, or he should be. Someone there must know what’s happened. I told them the Occulti – ”
“Must we start this again,” Mrs. Tillard sighed, getting up to clear the plates.
Like so many other times, Mr. Tillard took the comment in stride. It really was all his fault that things had happened the way they did. They might all still be living happily in the capital, if only he handled things differently. One day, she might forgive him, they both might. He reached out to touch Noirah’s hand, but the girl unconsciously pulled away.
“Sure he might want to investigate, but more importantly, he’ll be able to arrange Kyle’s return to dear, little Farmingdale.”
Kyle smiled, touched that she remembered his hometown. “Do you think he can?”
“I’m not making promises. Who knows why or how you got here, but he’s the only one with that type of authority,” Noirah replied honestly. “I can only get you so far.”
Mr. Tillard rubbed his temples, his eyes dropped to the table. “I can go with you; I should go with you.”
Noirah ran her finger along the rim of her glass, eliciting a high pitched ringing. “But you can’t. They won’t let you step a foot there, especially if they know what you were up to last year and they most certainly do.”
Mrs. Tillard dropped a dish. Kyle wondered how they weren’t choking on the tension in the room. He was getting lost in it. He sat back and stared out the window at the darkness. The lights in the house only barely kept it out.
“Noirah --” her father started.
“I can manage the trip myself. We can stop at gram’s tomorrow night -- I’d like to see her -- and then Uncle Sal’s the next.” Noirah kicked Kyle under the table; his head shot up. “Hey pay attention. I’m not talking about this for my own benefit. All this sound good? The trip’s not so bad and the rest stops should prove pleasant.”
“Uh, yeah, I guess,” he answered, “I trust you.”
“Good,” she replied happily. She nudged his leg once more with an unreadable sparkle in her eye. “I’m very trustworthy.” She started to rise. As far as she was concerned, the conversation had concluded.
“Noirah, you’re my child. You don’t think that your arrival might be just as suspect?” her father asked. His parental worry was not quite ready to depart.
Noirah took a breath and clenched her hands on the back of her chair. She leaned over toward the table, so that the back two legs of the chair lifted. “I’ll tell you what: if anyone says anything, I’ll tell them I’ve disavowed you and hate you just as much as they do. I’ll tell them that I’ve seen what a traitor you actually are. That should keep me safe, don’t you think?” she said in a light, off-handed manner. She settled the chair back down, but her body still pressed over it, her bent arms supporting her weight. Her posture was playful and threatening at the same time.
Her father in turn closed his eyes and nodded, “You could do that. It would certainly be to your benefit and Kyle’s.” His eyes reopened and the two years of wretchedness, remorse and shame appeared in them. A little man, who only wanted forgiveness, sat in that chair, held under the sway of his only child, the one thing that remained to him after everything else disappeared. “Yes, you could. But would you do --”
“Don’t! Don’t do that! Don’t play the victim. Stop looking so pathetic! You did this! Not me. I’m the child, so don’t make me the enemy,” Noirah shouted. She stood bloodless, looking at her hands gripping the back of the chair. With effort, she unclenched them and said evenly, “Come on, Kyle. I need to pack for tomorrow and I want you to help.”
Noirah pushed her chair in, but paused for a moment to take in her father. “I don’t hate you. I’m angry.” She played with the cuff of her shirt. “I’m just angry. Maybe one day I won’t be, maybe one day not all, maybe one day the anger will die away and who knows what will be there when it does. We’ll both just have to wait and see.” She turned and left.
Kyle remained seated for a moment. In the background, he saw Mrs. Tillard scrubbing away at a plate, looking blankly ahead. Mr. Tillard had his hands tangled in his fading hair. When he sensed that Kyle was still seated there, he gave a tight smile. His eyes were red-rimmed.
Kyle’s tongue felt too big for his mouth, but he attempted words, “Thanks for dinner. All of this means a lot to me. I mean, not everyone would have taken me in or helped me. You’ve really done a lot. So, thanks.”
“Of course, Kyle. Our pleasure.” He rested his hands out in front of him and pressed them down. “Could you do me a favor though?”
“Sure thing,” Kyle replied readily.
“Just keep her safe. She’s a good kid and I -- well, just, keep her safe.” He gave the table a tap and somehow reawakened the constant pep and cheeriness that Kyle had witnessed before. “Now, go on, boy. Don’t want to keep her waiting. Not very patient, that one.”
Kyle nodded, only too glad to depart.