The sun hadn’t yet reached the apex of its journey and Kyle had already had what he would term a long day. It had begun with Noirah pounding on his door at an ungodly hour. She didn’t need to, he hadn’t slept. All night he tossed and turned or stared up blankly through the blackness of the room. Everything felt like home in his blindness, but the moment he closed his eyes, he knew that he was far from it.
He had been lying motionless with his eyes shut, yet wide awake, when Noirah had burst in. She, already fully dressed, had jumped onto the bed and began to shake him.
“Get up! We have things to do!” she had shouted, bouncing up and down on the bed.
She too had a sleepless night, but for very different reasons. Her nerves were sparking like a frayed wire. The minutes couldn’t fly fast enough until she finally escaped this place. She was beaming as she tried her best to rouse Kyle. At the sight of her euphoric smile, he had yielded one of his own, slowly got out of bed and followed her downstairs. Her father, dressed in a bathrobe and pajamas, had been in the kitchen, cooking up breakfast. Her mother’s footsteps could be heard upstairs: she hadn’t been in the mood to say goodbye.
“Oh, she has one of those headaches,” Noirah had said knowingly, if not a little sadly. With her departure tip-toeing ever closer, Noirah had found it easier to be more gracious to her father. The surprise and happiness that appeared on his face made her feel a warmth and satisfaction that had been absent for some time. Part of her, however, that part hardened by years of disappointment itched, and when he went to hug her, she found herself squirming. She wanted to feel the way a daughter ought in her father’s arms, but she couldn’t. The three of them weren’t a family, just three people who ended up living in the same house for a time and would eventually disperse and never speak of it again. It was pitiable, but not epic or tragic. Her parents simply should never have had a child and she was a girl who should never have been someone’s daughter. No, not tragic at all.
Mr. Tillard held onto her for as long as he could and placed an affectionate goodbye kiss on the top of her head. When he released her, the two looked away.
Kyle was surprised when Mr. Tillard hugged him as well.
“I wish the best for you,” he said. He held Kyle by the top of his arms. “I do hope that you find what you’re looking for.”
Kyle nodded and thanked him and then he and Noirah set out
The day had proven temperate. Seasons here, so Noirah had informed him, didn’t coincide with his own: fall here was just beginning, as his spring was coming to a close. The forest had grown progressively lush and colorful, rich green blended with an autumnal tinge. Out peeked bits of bright blue sky with rays of sunshine woven in. From time to time a cool breeze would come along and play with the leaves, some of which would sprinkle down to the ground. In the distance, Kyle could hear the rushing of a stream providing a steady bass to which the birds would sing. Once in a while he could catch sight of an animal in the brush or hiding behind a tree. Those were the moments when he generally tripped over a rock, or a twig, or a root, a few times his shoelaces, and one time nothing at all. But he wanted to see everything. Yes, he had seen a tree, he had explained to Noirah, but these were trees from a different universe. These were Panchaean trees, those were Panchaean critters. They were special just because they were different. Then that bird, it was brilliant. A big, old, yellowish bird had flown right above his head. Kyle had reached up, thinking that it would let him touch it. It didn’t. It actually seemed rather affronted. Noirah had shaken her head in exasperation, looking like a mother whose child had once again walked into a tree while chasing butterflies -- his mom always thought it was charming.
“Oh, you idiot, watch out!”
He felt a sharp yank on his hand and nearly collided into Noirah.
“What was that for?” he yelped, rubbing his shoulder which felt like it may have pulled out of its socket.
“You nearly tripped, again. Watch where you’re walking or you’ll break a leg and don’t think for a second that I wouldn’t desert you for shelter. I am not staying out here at night.”
“Gonna break my arm before my leg. A little excessive on the force?” Kyle rejoined. He stopped and scrutinized the surrounding area, jumping when a little rodent scurried by. “How safe aren’t we exactly?”
“I don’t think we’ll be murdered, if that helps,” she replied bored. “Let’s go.”
“No. That’s not an answer! I refuse to move until you explain some things, especially those specific to my safety!” He stamped his foot to make his resolve clear.
Noirah looked ready to spit fire at Kyle’s unusual show of spine. “Well I can tell you that your safety is significantly reduced by your thickheaded decision to stand there, unless you think that someone might mistake you for a tree if you stand still enough.”
“No, I don’t think that someone would mistake me for a tree, thank you very much,” he replied childishly. “What’s so difficult about answering my question?”
“I thought I had, but if you really want more, I have this unique ability both to walk and answer questions. It’s amazing, I know.” She patted her knees as though she was calling a dog, “Now, come on. Let’s go.”
He begrudgingly acquiesced. “Why do you do that? Why do you play around with people?”
“Because I don’t have television with which to amuse myself.”
Last night Kyle had spent some time explaining to her the joys of television. For the most part she hadn’t really comprehended it. She was, however, enthralled by Google: ‘You just type something in and the computer looks for information on it? It’s like a dream! It’s like what I want my brain to be. I think it’s almost there. I have an almost Google brain.’
“So, we’re having some civil disturbances which have been escalating due to our government’s slow response on issues concerning our northern border. The people up there are basically hicks and they think that this delayed reaction a sign that our current regime has no interest in their welfare. Not untrue. Our senators tend to give more attention to those with the money and donations. It’s hard to piece together the facts from the papers, but it seems like land disputes that have existed for decades might finally morph into full on war: our world’s first! So, congrats on being here during a potentially historic moment.” She clapped him on the shoulder. The gesture took him by surprise and he went stumbling forward. She continued, “Some of the degenerate citizenry have used this ‘conflict’ as an excuse to pursue their own personal ends and have begun to ambush people travelling from one town to the next. They mostly stick to the main roads, but these rustic passes provide easy targets for bandits because there isn’t any patrol. No one really travels on these paths, well except us, so I can’t imagine its lucrative enough for mass gangs of criminals to linger. I wander in the woods daily. All the same, I don’t like it at night.”
“Oh, that’s all,” Kyle replied, trying to keep pace with Noirah. He wished that he hadn’t nagged her for an answer; in his earlier ignorance he could pretend that he was safe in this pastoral wonderland. If ignorance was such bliss, how come he wanted to know so much?
“That’s all. Any other queries?” Noirah replied. “Or will you grant me some peace?”
“Uh yeah, actually have one more.” When she nodded her compliance, he asked, “We’re going to see a king. I assume that’s a big deal. Like I couldn’t even talk to my president and he’s not a king, so how is this going to happen? I got the sense that maybe you and your family were connected? What’s the story?”
Noirah grimaced. “Yes, we certainly were. My father used to be head advisor, the right hand man for the current king, Jacob. They had been friends under the former regime; they ran in the same political circles, used to have the same political beliefs. The Tillard name used to hold weight and came with some great perks. I grew up in the palace. My great, great, great, great, great grandfather was one of the original settlers and even helped draft the Constitution. If the man had a little more foresight, saw how the state would change, I think that he might have made a stronger push to attain the supreme title. Nevertheless, while we Tillards weren’t self-made royals, we were undeniably powerful and important, notable.”
“And now you’re not?”
“How’d you guess? Now we’re less famous, more infamous.”
“Thought you would like something like infamy,” Kyle retorted, reaching into his bag and pulling out an apple that her father had given them for the journey. She held out her hand and he passed it over to her without her needing to ask. Then he drew another for himself.
She inspected the apple as though it were her life. She should love the infamy, the notoriety, but it wasn’t as much in reality. Through all the negative press and rumors she became a nobody. It felt like it had happened overnight, but she had sensed that something was amiss a couple weeks earlier: her parents were acting more oddly than normal, and people treated her differently. Now that she was older, and a little more aware, she assumed that things had been in the works for much longer. They had probably picked her father for their target long before and he had accepted the role, the stupid, selfish, unflinching man. For a few months, she had been proud. Her father wouldn’t passively accept what had come to pass like everyone else. But in the end everything revolved around that single moment when her father came home and told them that they had to leave, now.
She hardly had time to pack. She had run into her room and threw everything necessary into a bag. No one even came to say good-bye. That didn’t completely surprise her. Making friends had never been a priority for Noirah. But she had some and they were nowhere to be found. She had barely noticed them trickling away until they were gone and she stood alone. Her family walked out of the door with only the gloating eyes and spying cameras as audience. She had always paraded around the palace with an air of pride, but as they departed, she understood what it meant to walk with a head held high. Every step out of that life she had taken without a tear. Her dignity carried her through the shame. She hoped that it still would.
Her chest felt tight. Footsteps fell heavy, each bringing her closer to that place. The idea had excited her at first; she was going home. But it wasn’t, not really, not anymore. Home existed in the nowhere place between now and over two years ago. She had wanted to prove to everyone that they hadn’t ruined her, but was unsure if she could. Her head still remained high, because that’s all she had left.
She took a bite of her apple and hit a rotten spot. Perfect.
“This is disgusting,” she commented to Kyle and threw the apple to the ground.
He held out his, which was nearly finished, “Want the rest of mine?”
She smacked it out of his hands and watched his face fall.
“What was that for?” he asked sharply.
“Just a lesson: offer up something and someone else will ruin it.”
“That’s not true,” Kyle objected quietly.
“What would you know? What have you ever done in Farmingdale? What has ever happened to you?” she snapped. She quickened her pace. Kyle had to jog to keep up. Of course he stumbled on the root of a tree and fell face first onto the ground. Noirah stopped up ahead and turned around.
“The gods, Kyle! What is it about walking that you find so damn confusing!” Noirah yelled. She looked angry enough to punch a tree and Kyle thought that the tree might lose that battle. He chuckled, Noirah was kind of like the Hulk. Don’t make Noirah angry. You won’t like Noirah when she’s angry. His chuckle morphed into full-on laughter.
She crossed her arms and gave him a withering stare, “What? What could possibly be funny right now?”
“Uh, just thinking about how much you and the Hulk have in common,” Kyle answered, feeling lightheaded in his amusement.
“The Hulk?” She blew out an exasperated breath. The happy look on his face deflated her rage. “He’s one of those picture book characters?”
“Comic books,” Kyle corrected. “And yes.”
She let her arms fall back down to her sides. “Your inanity astounds me.”
“I’ll pretend that I’ll know what that means.” He looked up at her, glad to see that she seemed like herself again even if it was gained at the expense of his dignity. The sacrifice was worth it to see her smile. Then from his spot on the ground Kyle mustered up more hutzpah and contested her earlier statement, “Noirah, I get that stuff happened and I get that you don’t really want to tell me about it, but I want you to know that I wouldn’t ruin anything, not for you. And I’m sorry that someone else did. So maybe next time you’ll remember that and not smack perfectly delicious apples out of my hand.”
His words gave her pause. “You’re too nice, you know that?” She chuckled, shaking her head at this boy’s ability to charm her when so few people could. He might not be exceedingly bright, but he was special, he was a good person, a creature as rare as a unicorn. “You really are.”
Kyle smiled up at her. “Going to help me up?”
“Don’t see why I should. You were completely capable of falling down by yourself, so I trust you can pull yourself up.” As soon as he stood, she snatched his hand and began to run to the approaching hill. “Now come on, we’ve wasted way too much time on silly emotions! Let’s go!”
He ran along with her, and shouted, “I’m not that nice.”
Dropping his hand, she turned around still jogging with a slight skip, somehow avoiding a gangly root in the path, “Yes, you are,” she sang out to him, her voice ringing on the final word.
He found himself laughing once more. This had been a long day, but far from his worst, perhaps close to one of the best. He started sprinting to catch up.
The descent down the last hill elated Kyle as he saw the idyllic town up ahead. At the foot of the hill, their path led up to a white, wooden archway that marked the beginning of the quaint hamlet. Sprinkled before the gate were large, green trees that hung down its fruits for the taking. The grass spread out evenly before them, soft and smelling freshly mown. The verdant green was more brilliant than gold. Kyle felt like running down the hill with his arms spread wide like a bird’s, basking in the fall’s crisp breeze. A small group of children played tag in the nearby field. When was the last time Kyle had played outside? How could you not play in this place, a place so full of life? People and their children and fruit trees, beautiful, beautiful life. Kyle paused and looked over at the kids, who had stopped their game to watch the two approach. He smiled at them. Instead of waving or smiling back, they all just stared. One little girl with pigtails stuck out her tongue.
“Little brats,” Noirah muttered next to him, only to stick her own tongue out. The girl turned back to her friends and they all began to whisper to one another. Noirah raised her voice to shout at them, “I can hear you, pigtails, so watch your mouth.” The little girl covered her mouth and stared at Noirah with amazement. Noirah, satisfied with her victory, turned back to Kyle. “Honestly, they’re being nasty for no other reason than a lack of manners. They don’t even know I’m a Tillard.” She shoved him along, “Come on, this way.” As they passed the children, Noirah stared down her adversary, “I have my eyes on you, piggy.”
The place was the same as ever: Pleasanton. A person could choke on the fumes of the mawkish affectations of these people. This was Panchaea’s first town, established in 30NA (1898AD). For some reason at that time long ago at the near beginning the capital city had already appeared too large, a little too unsafe, too close to the ground, and so a small group of well-to-dos founded their own little town removed from the grit. The Tillard clan built a home there; in fact, most of Southern Kingdom’s imminent families had headed over. Along with the town came the first train and the first station, allowing the men to travel back and forth from family to work. Things hadn’t changed: a nice little haven for men and women to hide away from what they did in public, all clean and white, a wonderful stage on which to act out the ideal lives that the community thought proper. They believed so ardently in their scenery, in their own characters that hardly anyone gave Noirah a second glance as she and Kyle walked along the sidewalk. Some even smiled at her like she was still the fine, well-educated young lady from the fine, upright Tillard family.
Noirah, however, wasn’t one for playing to illusion’s favor. And how could she when she saw Emily Silver sauntering down the street in clothes much too fine for an early evening stroll around the block. Just like the nouveau riche to wear their wealth so garishly, Noirah thought. As soon as the woman noticed Noirah from afar, she had steadily kept her eyes adrift, staring at the emptiness on the other side of the street. But then she made the fatal mistake of a glance: the boy had piqued her interest. Noirah smirked, glinting with delight.
“Emily Silver, what a pleasant surprise.” She brought her hand to her chest, giving a shrill, little tee-hee, and winked at Kyle who looked gob-smacked at this sudden change. “Oh, look, I’ve punned. Just punning like a poet, me.” She shared an overexcited look with Kyle, her hands flitting to brush his upper arm. “And that was alliteration! Dear me, I’m simply full of poetic devices today.”
“Hello, Noirah. It has been some time since we’ve seen you here. How are you?” she asked. Emily, ever conscious of her humble origins, attempted to cover her rustic accent with overly genteel pronunciation of each syllable. Every word and inflection was too well-practiced. Likewise her appearance struggled too hard to give an impression that her past didn’t exist. Even during a leisurely luncheon, one could find Emily with over-coiffed hair, red lipstick painting her plump lips and bright blue eye-shadow smeared on her lids. Everyone in Pleasanton was far too well-mannered to inform her of her gauche styling, such comments were reserved for private conversations whenever Emily had left the room.
“Well, Em, I’ve been doing grand,” Noirah replied, aping Emily’s airs. “Things have been -- what’s the word I’m looking for -- grand. Honestly, I don’t think that it could be grander. So thanks for asking. How about you? How are you doing? You look nice and rotund, healthy as a cow -- oh, horse. The saying is healthy as a horse, but one barnyard animal is as a good as another, I say.”
Mrs. Silver prickled a bit, but managed to return Noirah’s false smile. “Lovely, dear. Mr. Silver and I have just built an extension on our house. He really has been doing wonders in the Senate and the people seem to recognize that. These past two years have been wonderful for us.”
Noirah held her breath, realizing that anyone could play the game. She took Kyle’s hand and squeezed it hard, expending all her emotions so that not one showed visibly on her face. Kyle gallantly attempted to turn his grimace into a smile, but he’d be surprised if he came out of this trial with any functioning fingers.
“I think that my father really saw his potential a few years ago when he endorsed his first bid for a senatorial seat. Mr. Silver hid his talents so deeply, like a snake burrowed in the grass, but my father saw it far before the rest.”
The conversation came too close to reality, so the elder woman changed the topic, “Here to see you grandmother, dear?”
“No other reason to be in Pleasanton, except maybe to soak up all its pleasantness. The people here are so welcoming. I walk in and it’s like getting hugged by a hundred rainbows.” Noirah embraced herself in a giant bear hug and swung back and forth with a large smile plastered on her face. “I love hugs and rainbows. I sometimes think about changing my name: Hugsandrainbows Tillard. They’d call me Hugs for short.”
“Yes, it is a lovely community.” No longer could Emily keep her curiosity at bay: she asked Noirah who Kyle was.
Noirah entwined her own hand in Kyle’s and proudly proclaimed, “My lover.”
Kyle’s eyes opened wide as he tried to regain possession of his hand, rather piqued that she persisted to include him in her jokes without first consulting him. While he whispered harsh protests, Noirah would have none of it. Without looking at him, she put her finger up to his lips, insultingly shushing him and gently pushing him away.
“Yup, he and I, just two kids in love. Got ourselves into a spot of trouble too.” She rubbed her stomach. “Like my family needs anymore scandals,” she explained in a comically exaggerated tone of cordiality. “But off to tell Grams. Toodles, Emmy.” Noirah gave the woman a kiss on the cheek and with a tiny wave made her way to her grandmother’s, dragging along Kyle whose tongue sat so heavily in his mouth that all he could manage was a few unintelligible grunts.
He glanced back at Emily, who continued to watch them. Despite how Kyle thought the conversation went, the woman looked rather triumphant. She held Kyle’s eye for a moment, nodded and then proceeded on her way.
Noirah finally slowed their pace once they passed the shadow of the town hall at the edge of the town’s square. They followed a cobblestone street lined on either side with clean, smooth sidewalks, which white, picket fences bordered. Each house seemed more like a cardboard cutout than anything that could possibly contain people within. They were tall and grand, each standing exactly like the other, white and clean. Even the grass of each lawn appeared to have been cut to the exact same length.
“Fat, old cow,” Noirah uttered, after a long silence.
Kyle grimaced, “Ah, come on, don’t say fat. She wasn’t even --”
“Kyle, you got to get a thicker skin if you’re going to continue to spend time with me,” she instructed, “I mean, if I called her a moderately proportioned cow, it’d take the bite out of the insult. And you must admit, she’s a cow.”
“I guess, a little,” he said, “but could you not imply that we’re,” he couldn’t say it, “you know.”
“Lovers? Don’t be a prude. It’s not like I could tell her who you really are and I thought I’d have some fun with it. She makes the funniest little puckered face when you insult her bourgeois sensibilities,” she answered, looking from porch to porch, trying to catch sight of something through the drawn blinds.
Kyle couldn’t really appreciate her idea of fun, but he understood why that woman couldn’t know who he was. He didn’t know much, but the name Silver came up quite a bit and never in a good context. And Kyle and Noirah had a secret. What a good secret they had. At the memory of the look on that woman’s face, with her big red lips sucked in, he giggled: she had looked horrified.
“Told you it was fun,” Noirah commented. She swung their clasped hands and recounted the old gossip of the town’s denizens as they passed the different houses that lined the lane. Donald French had flunked out of university, but daddy still managed to get him a job; Mr. Joseph Gagne was caught in a rather precarious situation with his co-worker, and rumor had it that he and Mrs. Gagne slept in different rooms; the Mires family had that odd, ginger child who looked a little too much like Mrs. Mire’s ginger boss. And Mrs. Wolf had once imbibed a few too many cocktails and created quite a stir at the palace’s annual Christmas banquet. That was the night that Noirah learned what drunk was.
Then she pointed up to a large, white house among the many. It stood out with its bright blue shutters and family of grotesque gnomes dwelling in the middle of the lawn. Noirah had found them as a small child in some novelty store. She had fallen deeply in love with them and gave them to her grandmother as a birthday gift. They had been a staple of the old woman’s front lawn for well over a decade, despite complaints from neighbors. A few of the cobblestones, which led up to the door, had become dislodged and the grass, compared to its neighbors’, was a bit more unkempt. Wind chimes hanging above the door rang as the autumnal breeze swam through them. Perhaps it wasn’t as tidy as the rest of the houses, but this house stood out for its singular charm and warmth.
Noirah bounded up the steps of the porch, opened the screen door and pounded on the white door behind it. She stood on her tiptoes to peer through the octagonal window just above her eye-sight. Kyle stood behind and also looked in.
“Grams, it’s me. Open up!” Noirah shouted.
At the end of the hall, which stretched out from the door, an old, gray haired woman appeared, wiping her hands with a towel. She smiled and gave a wave as she hurried, as fast as her old legs would let her, to the door. Both kids took a step back as she opened it.
Grams stood for a second in the doorway, dumbstruck at the sight of her granddaughter. The woman was taller than Noirah and sturdier looking. Although her age had brought about a slight slouch and made her knees more brittle, she emanated strength and self-assurance, and glowed with that softness of a grandmother whose age brought unbridled love for her family and friends, whose experience could change grief into acceptance and acceptance into joy and whose kind looks and kinder words could make you feel hopeful for your future and trust in yourself. One could espy all the happy moments of her life playing in their depths of her green eyes. Her face animated with every feeling, telling her thoughts before she spoke her words. Right now, the old woman was overjoyed to see Noirah and Noirah unabashedly her.
“Noirah? What in the world are you? I didn’t...oh, come here!” she pulled the tiny girl into her arms and kissed the top of her head. Noirah settled herself against the woman’s warmth and softness.
“You smell like old people,” she sighed into the woman.
“It’s good to see you too.”
From over the top of that black head of hair, Grams noticed Kyle. She smiled at him, that mischievous sort that often played on Noirah’s own features.
“Now, who are you?” the woman asked, resting an arm across Noirah’s shoulders.
“Me?” Kyle cleared his throat of a frog that wasn’t there. “Um, I’m Kyle. Kyle Walters. I’m a friend of Noirah’s.”
“A friend? That’s all?” the woman asked, playfully squeezing the girl’s shoulders.
“Yes, Grams, a friend. Kyle, this is Grams.”
“Hello, Grams,” Kyle said uncertainly. The woman was staring at him, sizing him up. He drew his uncomfortable eyes down to watch his shuffling feet. When he peeked back up, she was still looking at him. Finally she lifted an eyebrow and nodded, as though she had just completed a long conversation with herself and agreed with the outcome.
“Come here,” she ordered in her deep, commanding voice. Kyle dutifully did so and was surprised when the woman hugged him. “You, my boy, look like you need this a good deal.” She ruffled his hair and whispered in his ear, “Sometimes a person just needs a good hugging.”
And he did. This was home. This was his mother knowing what he needed, knowing what type of day he had had. That was his mother’s hand brushing through his hair like he was still a little boy. In that moment, when he felt her arms around him, her insightful kindness, he broke. All the stress, confusion and fear, the worry and longing for his mother, all of it culminated in a gut-wrenching emotional ball that broke through the lid that she had opened with a simple gesture. She guided his head to her shoulder with a coo.
“There you go,” she whispered, “No shame in a cry.”
An indecipherable amount of time passed, and Kyle stopped. He stood straight and wiped his eyes, not willing to look at Noirah. She stood in the doorway playing with a strand of hair, clinically watching him like a confused child who couldn’t quite grasp what was happening, but nevertheless possessed the smallest amount of jealousy at her inability to partake.
“You can call me Bernice, Kyle,” the woman said as she smoothed out a few errant strands of hair lingering on his forehead. She saw his face fall. “Or Grams. I probably like that even more. Never had better fun than as a Grams. Besides, Bernice is an old lady’s name.”
“Oh, stop that already. He’s nearly a man, he doesn’t need coddling,” Noirah scoffed. Then in an effort to diffuse her own discomfiture and for sheer sport, she added, “Not only that but he’s from the Outside. I believe that’s what you call a non-sequitur. You’re welcome.”
Grams paused and gave Kyle a second glance.
“From the Outside, eh?” she replied slowly.
“Can’t help it,” he offered, shrugging sheepishly with an abashed smile.
“Hm, no I guess you can’t, Kyle Walters. Can’t help any of it.” She patted him kindly on his cheek. “Mr. Walters from the Outside, I did not see you coming.”
“It’s never going to get old throwing that bomb,” Noirah shouted gleefully from the hallway, already making her way into the kitchen. “Way more fun than the lovers bit.”
“You should really let me tell people!” Kyle said, chasing after her. “I want to throw bombs too!”
The two made their way down the hall, whispering and laughing. Bernice couldn’t have been more pleased.
“Oh, the sound of children bickering, how I have missed that.” And she had. Her big, old house had been terribly empty for too long; it was good to have it filled. It was good to see Noirah, good to see her better than she had been two years ago when she, her mother and her father, Bernice’s son, appeared on her doorstep one night. What an awful time for them all, most terrible for the small sixteen-year-old girl who had learned too early how precarious every little joy, every little detail of one’s life was. It could fall through your clenched fist in an instant. She’d never be the same Noirah from before that moment, Bernice mused, but she was better and that Kyle, he was just the sort of person she needed. She laughed as she heard Kyle yelp over something that Noirah had probably done.
“Now, quit with your games. You two are going to help me cook whether you like it or not,” Bernice bellowed. She paused, “Noirah, do I want to know about this lovers bit of yours?”
Kyle sat back in the den, feeling utterly sated by a warm meal prepared by all three of their hands. He had thought upon his arrival that all he wanted to do was take a nap, but he had such fun cooking and laughing along with the Tillard women that he had felt reinvigorated. However, now nestled with a full stomach in that soft, comfortable couch beside Noirah, Kyle knew that he longed for some rest.
The room itself was a museum, a repository of every gift Bernice had received from a child’s hand or kept as an artifact of her past. The floral-patterned couch was her mother’s and still held the scent of her lilac perfume. The coffee table was the first purchase that she and her husband had made as a married couple. The hideous patch-work armchair, the great eyesore of the room and now Bernice’s favorite chair, was her husband’s idea of fair play after their first fight: the giant, three-foot nutcracker, standing in the corner, her own revenge. The shelf above the fireplace held a treasure trove of eclectic, kitschy items, including, most notably, a framed picture of a cartoonish lion drawn by one Sal Tillard, so the bold signature in the bottom corner declared. Beside the picture was a menagerie of glass woodland creatures huddled around a candle in the shape of a tree, a gift from her elder son, Frank. Interwoven among the baubles were pictures of her family through the years. While cluttered, the room told a story, displaying the whimsy of Bernice and her love for her family. Kyle looked over at Noirah and found her relaxed in the cushions with her eyes closed, content as a kitten.
Bernice entered carrying a tray with a steaming teapot, three cups of various sizes and colorful designs, along with some cream and sugar. Kyle went to go help her, but she shooed him away with a look. “Does it look like I need help, young man?” she demanded. She placed the tray down on the coffee table.
“Mm, tea,” Noirah purred, opening her eyes. She leaned over and grabbed the pot and started to pour herself a cup.
“When did you come back south?” Bernice asked.
“Almost a year ago.” Noirah frowned, dropping several spoonfuls of sugar into her cup. “Dad felt like it was wrong to stay there. I think that part of him wants to go to the king and tell him what he’s heard, but he can’t. While it’d serve them right to get what’s coming to them, the right people wouldn’t be punished. I think that I should say something, maybe.” She looked to her grandmother for the correct answer.
Bernice’s eyes drifted to a picture on the shelf above the fireplace. It was of two young boys proudly holding up the large prize of a fishing trip, behind them their father leaned over with his arms around both, beaming more widely than they were. Those were the days when all that mattered was a fishing trip: two little boys and their father sharing in the joy of something so small, but so big. Nothing in the world would make her part with that beautiful photograph, that perfect, simple moment in time when none of her family got hurt through a choice, through doing what they believed right. A mother wants the best for her child, but she also wants her child to do the best. What could she do when the two desires were miles apart? She smiled at those little boys and her late husband’s youthful face. In the end, they all chose the harder path and they all suffered for it and so would Noirah. The pride was always bolstered by grief.
“Perhaps. I would be careful about how loudly you say what you know. It won’t look good that your family emigrated north considering the circumstances of your departure. Accusations don’t have to be true, and scapegoats make good shields.”
Noirah nodded, soaking in her words. Her eyebrows twitched as she thought things over. She pulled at a string sticking out on the edge of the sofa. “I wouldn’t mind watching them all burn.” Noirah said thoughtfully. Bernice cleared her throat. “I meant, I would mind that. So sad to see people justly suffer.” Noticing that Kyle’s eyes were on her, and very eager to keep some of her family’s more suspect intrigues from him, Noirah quickly changed the topic, “Why don’t you ask Kyle when he came south? That’s much more interesting than my story.”
Bernice granted her grandchild’s request. “Yes, Mr. Walters. Kyle Walters from the Outside. I once knew a girl with that last name, Walters. A thoughtful girl with a brilliant warmth. Extraordinarily kind. She was friends with Sal and married one of his friends, who happened to have meet her when he journeyed to the Outside. What was her first name? Yes, Penelope. Dear, sweet Penny Walters, wife of Christopher Leonard.”
At those words Kyle’s heart stopped. He couldn’t move; his eyes remained locked with Bernice’s, trying to figure out if she was toying with him. She wouldn’t. He knew she wouldn’t, but what she was saying couldn’t be true. His mother was Penny Walters so that meant her name should never be spoken here because it was impossible. And his father? She knew his father. She knew his father, but he didn’t. She might have known his mother and he began to think that maybe he didn’t know her at all. His mother, Penelope Walters. How many times did he, seated on her lap, look up at her glowing face while she regaled him with her stories. ’The air was different the girl thought. It smelled sweeter, like she had fallen into the lightness of a cloud, or wandered into the loveliest dream.” And her eyes would close and she’d float away to the place, to this place apparently.
“Wait, the Leonards? Kyle’s a Leonard? Do you know what this means?” Noirah asked excitedly. She bounced onto the couch with her legs beneath her, as she turned fully to him, gripping his shoulder.
“No,” a shell-shocked Kyle answered.
“The Leonards are one of the royal lines, before the new regime. In 62, William Leonard married Sylvia Forest, whose father had taken on the role of king, and their son Charles inherited the throne after his uncle died. Your father was a Leonard; you are a Leonard. You’re practically a prince! Or you would have been if history unraveled differently. This is amazing! I am truly and utterly amazed and…I think that I might not know a word to express myself.”
Kyle looked to Bernice for affirmation. He got it, but what did he do with it. What did he do with any of this? None of this changed anything. He was still raised out there; he still grew up without his dad. His dad, a man from another universe. His dad, the man who was never there. Kyle felt as though he had forgotten how to breathe. The revelation was choking the life out of him, at least the life that he knew. His mother and father were here. Why didn’t his mother tell him? Because you would have thought that she was crazy, came the ready reply. ‘Oh, Kyle, I meant to tell you that your father is from another universe and he came here and we fell in love. Then naturally we went back to his universe and then I left. And he was a prince. All those stories I told you were true. Sweet dreams.’ Yeah, that would be a conversation to remember. He burrowed his head into his hands, his shoulders slumped over. He couldn’t feel anything or maybe he was feeling too much.
“Kyle?” Bernice questioned concerned. The young man looked pale.
“My mom and my dad,” he answered slowly. “I need a second. This is pretty huge. Way huger than what I thought was a huge an hour ago. You think waking up in a new universe is going to the biggest surprise of your life, but then…well.”
Bernice nodded and let silence reign. Even Noirah had the good sense to remain quiet. She looked at her friend. Her interest in the Leonard name disappeared. Normally she would have felt a thrill at learning something so exciting, but in place of the excitement pressed something different, sympathy, that long lost emotion. She placed her hand lightly on his knee.
He let his own shaking hand fall onto hers. Slowly she was becoming his rock. He squinted at her, trying to keep calm, “I never knew him. He left and I never knew him and he was supposed to be my dad, but...” He couldn’t finish his thought. “I don’t understand. Why don’t we live here then? If my Mom and Dad, if they were here, how come we’re out there, the Outside?” He lifted his eyes. “And my dad? Is he there? Or here? Does he still exist? Where was he?”
Bernice placed her cup on her lap, holding it with both hands. “Your parents had to leave, for their safety and for your own. I wasn’t apprised of the details, but they had run into trouble and your safety came first. They had been thrilled about your coming, I remember that vividly. I think that you helped them more than you know when things looked their darkest.”
“Great to know I was such a comfort to them,” Kyle exhaled in frustration.
“It’s not all that bad,” Noirah commented.
“How’s that?” he muttered to his sneakers.
“Well, your highness,” Noirah leaned over, and took his chin in her hand so that he had to see her. He felt tired and was in no mood for Noirah’s reindeer games. Even with this clearly written on his face, she persisted mirthfully, “if I bother your royal self, you can have me beheaded. You’d win first prize, walking into the city with my head on a stick.”
He couldn’t help but laugh. “Can’t imagine that it’d keep you quiet,” he rejoined.
She shook her head, “No, I don’t think that it would.” She joined her arm with his and placed her head against his shoulder. Slowly some of the tension eased from his body. His hands began to shake less and his breath began to reacquire its normal pace. Even she began to feel a bit more human.
“Is that why they needed protection? Cause my dad was royal or something? Like was that an issue?” Kyle asked.
Bernice expelled a breath and wetted her lips in preparation for the long story. “His heritage played a part. You see, our previous king, Andrew, though not an evil man, had developed into something of a tyrant. When he took the throne, the kingdom rejoiced. He truly seemed to be the salve that we needed, despite the fact that beneath his projected image brewed certain dubious habitudes. One must remember that it was an uncertain time; a power vacuum had left our kingdom weak. He was strong in many ways, but in others not, a paranoid man. The constant threats against the king, which started the moment that he ascended to the throne from usurpers of considerable standing and noble names of their own, wore on him. Power always makes a man a target, nor had he helped himself.
“King Andrew ruled with an iron hand that angered many. He put the needs of the state before the needs of her people and he couldn’t see the difference; he couldn’t understand the people’s discontent. He was consumed by the thoughts of an ideal state and couldn’t understand why others didn’t see his visions; why others wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice for utopia. Why else did Panchaea exist? Some particularly embittered aristocrats decided to take action against him and made an attempt on his life. From that point on, an already callous man grew harsher. His beloved state had betrayed him and he chose to tame her.”
“Until he was finally offed.” Noirah interjected. Her grandmother shrugged her shoulders.
“He was an old man, no one can say for sure. But the fact that the rumor abounds is enough, I suppose. But how does this relate to you?” Her eyes narrowed in on Kyle, whose marrow burned to hear something, anything about his family, his father, maybe himself. Bernice continued, “Yes, the kingdom was quite anxious due to the constant accusations of treason and escalating plots against the king. Many sensed a weakness in the man and took advantage of it to rid themselves of rivals by using trumped up charges which the king was all too eager to believe. Political finesse ruled the land. Rhetoric and duplicitous games became the most dangerous weapon. One wrong word could land you in prison or death. Your father,” she lifted her wrinkled, blue-veined hand and pointed at Kyle, making him both shrink back in the chair and his breath hitch. His father. Finally his father was becoming a real person. “Yes, your father was a trouble maker in their eyes. So it goes for the young and idealistic, especially those with some brains, no sense of fear and a legitimate claim to power, perhaps more legitimate than the man who was on the throne. Your father had the greatest reason to see that man dethroned.”
“But you knew him? You’ve met him?” Kyle begged.
“Since he was a little bit younger than you. He and Sal were good friends from school. Oh, I had a time keeping up with those two. But a sweet boy, earnest and eager and a bit of a dreamer. The house always sang with their laughter.” Her eyes became wistful as her face grew younger. “Then they grew up and I saw him a little less. The boys took up residence in the city, filling it with their huge spirits and bright energy. Wait a moment, I have something that you might like to see.”
She stood up and walked over to a chest tucked away in the corner. She lifted off blanket covering it and then opened the lid. After rifling through its contents, she found what she was looking for: a photo album. There within its pages held a very special photo.
“Here,” she said, placing the open book in Kyle’s hands.
It was a picture of two young men and a girl, his mother, long before he knew her. She sat in the grass with the sun reflecting off her dark brown strands, staring up at the two bronzed boys who struck overly-dignified poses, both holding the lapels of their jackets with their chins jutting high in the air. One, with sandy-brown, short-cropped hair, held a pipe pompously aloft in his hand, his eyes drifting to the girl. The other boy, with black, curly hair, was already beginning to crack a smile at his friend’s antics. Kyle followed his mother’s line of sight and knew instantly which one was his father; he could tell even without his mother’s help. He could find part of himself in that light-haired man, maybe not the bravado, maybe not the aura of confidence, but bits here and there. He lifted his finger and touched his own nose. He had his dad’s nose. He always wondered and now he knew. His eyes lingered. Did that man know what was going to happen? Did he know that one day he’d have a son and never know him; that so many years later his son would be scrutinizing this picture for answers that it couldn’t possibly offer?
“That was taken a few months after he met your mother and brought her here. Those three. Such lovely, happy times.” Kyle could already sense the storm clouds invading on the charming scene. “Then one day I read that he was being charged with conspiracy. Someone must have tipped him off or perhaps he got wind of it himself. He had already prepared for flight, and was gone before the authorities could act. He and your mother actually stayed here for a night, a risk only Christopher would have taken. We didn’t speak of what was happening. The night was spent reminiscing about your father’s youthful years, your mother’s family. Then they left. I haven’t an inkling how they got separated, nor when your mother finally went back to the Outside, but obviously that’s what happened. All I know is that they must have had some very loyal friends who could pull many strings and an equal amount of enemies.”
Kyle felt gravity tugging down at him. If there was no ground, he was certain that he would be sucked into some great void. He stared at his parents, who were looking at each other for all eternity. He wanted to be in that picture. He wanted to see them look at each other. An odd urge to cry was floating about on the top of Kyle’s throat to which he refused to succumb. What he really wanted was to be in his room talking to his mom about this while she held his hand.
In his head, he saw his mother and father together telling him about their trials, apologizing for keeping things secret. If his father was alive, maybe, just maybe, Kyle could find him and then he could bring him home, a gift for his mother who had given him so much. They could be a family. They could have been a family. Why didn’t his mother give him the slightest hint as to why his dad left? Things might have been so different. Maybe he wouldn’t have felt like his dad was some failure who ran off; maybe he wouldn’t have felt like some failure who made his dad run off. He could have been so different, if only he knew.
Conversation might have continued, but his thoughts buzzed too loudly in his ears for him to hear. He could tell that occasionally one or the other or both of the Tillards were watching him. Eventually Bernice left them for sleep. She kissed each warmly on the cheek and bid them sweet dreams. She granted herself another moment to behold Noirah and Kyle, standing side-by-side. It was truly lovely to have children in the house once more. If only things might be simpler, like a fishing trip. Nothing would ever be so simple now for either of those children.
Once Bernice’s footsteps could be heard on the stairs, Noirah plopped herself down on her grandmother’s armchair and looked at Kyle.
“So?” she said.
“Yeah,” Kyle agreed with the unspoken sentiment.
She picked up the discarded cup of tea from the side table and gave it a sniff, while sneaking a glance at Kyle, who remained motionless. “You okay?”
Kyle shook his head with a thoughtful look. “Don’t know. Probably not.” He shrugged his shoulders, completely lost. “My dad. He might be here -- heck, he’s been in this room. He might be alive, somewhere here, doing things, closer than ever and I just never knew.” He gave his knees a rub, leaning over. “I think that I need to go to sleep too. Or lie down. Or something.” Kyle stood up, feeling very distant from the boy who had taken a seat earlier.
As he crossed Noirah’s chair to make his way to the stairs, he found something holding him back. He glanced down and noticed Noirah had caught hold of his hand, her bright green eyes looking intently into his. “I promise you, when we get to the palace, I will sneak into the archives, hell, sneak into whatever I have to in order to find out what happened to your dad. I mean, it doesn’t seem right that someone like me had the chance to learn all about her own father, when someone like you doesn’t know his dad at all.”
Kyle wanted to act shocked, but he expected this from Noirah, even if she didn’t expect it from herself. He gave her hand a squeeze. “Thanks.”
She released his hand and leaned back into the chair, “Well, I get bored easily and this sort of investigation seems interesting enough to keep me mildly entertained for some time. And of course, I’m a really good person who likes to make others happy. And,” she held up her index finger, “this might lead to some answers as to why you’re here. If Grams knows, other people must know too. The question is who.”
They were both silent. Kyle’s head began to throb; he had to lie down. “Night.”
“Oh, your lordship, take the second room on the right. Sal’s old bedroom is where all our princely guests sleep. Night.”
He nodded to no one in particular and then headed to stairs, leaving Noirah alone to turn her thoughts about in her head.
He moved up the narrow steps slowly, finding that even with the utmost care they continued to creak. His hand slide along the railing and his eyes skimmed the many portraits lining the walls. Most were of family, many were of little Noirah herself. What would it have been like if he knew her back then? Maybe he might have if his parents had stayed. How different things might have been.
Kyle began to walk down the hall. For a second, he thought that he could hear his mother’s voice. He could see her. There she was, as young as she appeared in the photo, joking with that boy, his father. He stopped and watched his imagination play out in front of him. They would have been great; all three of them would have been brilliant together. But a moment, a man, a something, all of which didn’t interest Kyle, ruined the potential. The shadowy face of his father’s image turned his head away from his bride-to-be and filled with joy as he gazed upon his son for the first time. What would it be like when it happened for real, when Kyle found him and told him who he was? He moved in a haze, brushing past the frozen image of his parents, excited by the expectation of their reunification in the flesh, his mom, his dad and himself. In his heart, he knew this would all come to pass.
Kyle entered Sal’s room and was struck by how much it reminded him of his own room, the trifles of boyhood cluttering the space. Neither Kyle nor Sal made any real effort in decorating: they simply exploded. Everywhere journals and sketch pads abounded. Some of his drawings hung on the walls. Books and pictures filled shelves. Sal’s childhood bed had been made, probably by the hands of Bernice – what boy makes his own? – but the rest she wouldn’t touch, wouldn’t change a speck of her son. Though feeling like an intruder, Kyle meandered over and picked up a notebook, set prominently in the center of the desk. He began to read the scrappy handwriting on the opened page:
Entry # 23: I’ve been pondering whether or not I should quit school. It’s not a matter of laziness (mother, if you have gotten your hands on this, as I am sure you will, and are reading this right now -- are you amazed at my foresight yet? -- it is not laziness, be sure of it), but rather a sense of ennui (I feel like poseur just writing the word, even more for writing poseur, but what fun to say). My teachers are fine and my fellow classmates, I get along with them just fine -- my friends, perhaps I should spend less time with them and get in less trouble -- and I would never say that I’m too smart for the institution (again mother, don’t shake your head. While you might believe me to be a gleaming light which by far outshines the rest, I am not. I believe that I am quite regular. In fact, it’s rather nice to be average. It makes one feel connected and through that I feel larger than I will ever be alone. That is unless I never stop growing. What did you feed me as a child?). Please forgive my digression, I find when I write to you, mother, I’m compelled to blabber. I’m glad that I can make you laugh even when I’m far from home, years after I’ve written this, when I’m a man who doesn’t know this strange boy writing such things.
I can’t sit here anymore: sit with the desks and the chalkboard, next to a window that teases me with its playful pictures. I’ve been reading so much and there is so much out there that I really think it’d be best to go out and finally explore. I have great plans. I promise you, mother, I will make you proud.
I wonder how life might be if a person could just be a person without all the lines. We’ve outlined normality with such restrictions that no one can fill and then you feel ashamed for falling short, in failing to fit the mold (I’m an average abnormal). But I think that my abysmal failure in meeting these definitions, these marks of a man, makes me human. None of us know what we are. We don’t even know where we are. Maybe someday I’ll get someplace. I love you, mother, and that love will guide my every step.
For now I’ll trudge through the Monday blues. Tuesday can’t help but buoy one’s spirits. I can always dream in class. I can even dream now, whenever that is.
The entry finished. Kyle smiled. He wondered how many times Bernice had found herself in this room with this book in her hands, passing the time in the echoes of her son. Somewhere his own mother might be reading the relics left in his room, the little bits of Kyle that were scattered about. With the journal in hand, Kyle began some nighttime reading, excited by the miniscule hope that he might find a note about his mother or father. Not much time passed until his mind found peace and was lulled to sleep by the words of a man whom Kyle got to know without so much as a hello.
Downstairs, Noirah was trying to get to know another man. Her eyes settled on a photo of her father holding her as a baby. His face was always the same whenever she was around. She made him happy, even when she was a brat, even now. Once upon a time, her father was young and happy and had such dreams built up for all of them. These days, he was the only one that still believed, and even then only by hair’s breadth. The two of them didn’t differ all that much; nothing happened the way it was supposed to. She was sorry and, in her heart, she knew that he was too, but in the end that didn’t change a thing.
She closed the photo album, just another picture book, and went upstairs.