The morning had begun with rays of sunlight kindly caressing Kyle’s tired eyes open and quickly took off from there. After two days, Kyle finally stood under a spray of water, scrapping off the grime covering his skin, and then donned a clean set of clothes: they had been Sal’s, but suited Kyle fine. There standing in front of the mirror, Kyle felt renewed. He was a boy about to embark on a new phase of his life: he was going to find his father. He straightened the collar of his crisp, blue shirt and headed off to face the day.
Although saying goodbye to Bernice was like saying goodbye to his own grandmother, Kyle nearly sprinted out the door. They were walking too slowly for his taste, but Noirah, giddy herself at the prospect of seeing her uncle, had insisted that they needn’t hurry: Kallipolis, the capital, was only a few hours walk from Pleasanton. After such an arduous journey the day before, the two could proceed leisurely, enjoying their soon-to-be changes of fortune.
But then Kyle looked up at the darkening sky. Granted he didn’t have a watch, but time could not have flown by that quickly. They were supposed to be at Sal’s that afternoon, so how was the sky already turning black. No, it wasn’t the sky growing darker, but the clouds. Large, dark, threatening clouds hung low in the sky. There was definitely something in the air. The wind was picking up, violently whipping up the leaves; everything felt heavy around them. All signs were pointing to...
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Kyle said, still staring up. Noirah followed his gaze.
“You have got to be kidding me!”
“I just said that.”
“It wanted repeating.”
Before either could bemoan their misfortune further, the sky let out a steady downpour. Noirah gave a quick yelp, “RUN!”
“How is running going to help?” Kyle called out, as he watched Noirah take off. He sighed. He may have thought running was stupid, but that was no reason to get himself separated from the one person who could get him to where he needed to go, so he took off after her. Unfortunately, after looking up ahead, he could perceive no sign of Noirah. A solid sheet of gray rain surrounded him. He felt himself slipping on the wet, muddy ground. He shouted her name, dodging a low branch. Just when he started to believe that things were at their worst, the bottom fell out and showed him a new depth to his misery.
Without any warning, Kyle felt himself being pulled up harshly. His sneakers lost traction on the grass, and then he felt like he was flying. That wasn’t possible: he couldn’t fly. Yet his body blindly swung through the air. Kyle was lost somewhere between fear, amazement and nausea while his body uncontrollably flipped above the ground. But he wasn’t flying, something was tossing him about like a rag doll. Hands were holding him under his armpits. Then the hands were gone, and he went slipping and sliding to the ground, landing with a thud onto his right side. His body shuddered, desperately trying to suck in the air that his landing forced out of his lungs. He sat back on his haunches, blinking, wondering what had happened.
“Kyle?” a wavering voice whispered.
“Yeah, don’t worry, Noirah, it’s me.” If he hadn’t felt scared before this, her haunted tone sent a shiver down his spine. But she was there, they were together. That was something. No matter what happened, at least he had her.
He raised his head and gave a quick sweep of the area. They were in a small, musty cave. On the slate gray walls clung wet, green moss. The ground was hard, but dry. It was blissfully dry, while the rain still poured outside. It took a moment to adjust to the lack of light, but finally he spotted Noirah huddled in the corner furthest from the opening and she looked absolutely terrified. She clasped her knees close to her chest, her rain-slicked hair clung to the sides of her face, which had paled a shade beyond her usual whiteness. Her body was shaking, but not from the cold. In fact, in the middle of the cave, a nice, small fire, the sole source of light, burned, emitting comforting waves of heat.
“We’re in a cave,” Kyle said stupidly. Noirah didn’t answer. Her normally narrowed green eyes had grown supernaturally wide and froze on something just over his shoulder. He wondered how much he didn’t want to discover what that something was.
“Noirah, what is it?” he begged. Her eyes jumped to his. Her mouth opened, but nothing came out. Noirah was speechless. That did not bode good things. She closed her mouth and looked at him with her head cocked to the side in apology and confusion. Her eyes drifted back behind his shoulder, as she pushed herself further into her corner. Right now, he wished that she would yell at him, call him an idiot, act normal. At least, let him know what was causing that huge shadow. Anything that could frighten Noirah must be bad. He knew without a doubt that some life-ending force, just itching to squash him like a bug, stood right behind him. Well, there was no use in trying to avoid the inevitable. Kyle could brave this. He would face his death with a courage and dignity that he never possessed in life. Never too late, right? That could go on his tombstone: ‘Managed to be brave in the last few minutes.’
His nerve wavered. A sliver of insanity produced a bubbling giggle. This wasn’t funny. What on Earth was he laughing about? His head turned, but his eyes were closed. Do it, he ordered himself, open them. One, two, three and he took the dive. Any laughter died away. The thing was huge and hairy, like a giant gorilla or bear. It balanced its gigantic, muscular frame on two taloned, high-arched feet. It loomed over Kyle, leaning on two arms the size of Kyle’s legs. It dug the sharp claws of its large front paws into the dirt so that its broad, muscular back hunched over. In contrast to the fear-inspiring body was its face. There was something vulnerable about it, puppy-like, a grotesque puppy face. It had a short snout with its lower canines poking out. The under bite could be interpreted as a smile or a growl. The beast’s black, button nose sniffed at the air and its dark-rimmed, deep set, bright black eyes stared at Kyle with the same amount of curiosity that Kyle possessed. Kyle fought the urge to reach out and pet it between its two, dark floppy ears. He would have almost completely forgotten about how frightened he was, but the beast opened its mouth, displaying its upper set of teeth. Noirah shrieked, Kyle opted to freeze completely.
“No stare,” the beast grunted. Its giant feet stepped back into the shadows. Kyle coughed as he released a held breath. Who knew it could be so easy to forget to breath?
“Myenome KyKyWa?” He struggled with each word, finding his tongue completely uncooperative in his effort, like a big, lazy slab of meat. He cleared his throat and tried again, “My name’s Kyle, Kyle Walters.” Kyle heard the beast utter a low, whining growl. Its head ducked further into the shadows. “Uh, yeah. I’m still staring, aren’t I? I’ll stop. I’m sorry.” He turned his head to look at the cave’s rocky dome above. “See? No stare.”
“Wet, go fire. You dry. Get warm,” the beast grumbled as it went to a pile of wood just off to Kyle’s left. As it worked, searching for dry pieces of lumber to load onto the flames, Kyle scooted back to Noirah’s corner.
“It’s going to eat us. It built that fire to cook us and eat us,” Noirah whispered, digging her own claws into Kyle’s skin.
“No, it said a fire to dry us. You must have misheard,” Kyle replied, feeling oddly relieved when he saw the beast working away. Nothing happened, nothing at all. The beast had yet to attack and didn’t seem to want to. In fact, it was trying to help.
“You naive idiot!” Noirah let go of his arm, but only to smack him. “Of course it’s going to say that so as to ensure we don’t run! Which means, we better make a plan on how we are going to run.”
“But Noirah...” He was once again smacked in his arm. She was causing more damage than the beast was.
“Do you really think it pulled us out of the rain, and built up that fire as an altruistic humanitarian effort? Look at it! It’s not even human! It’s a human-eater. We are humans, ergo food which will prove a tasty morsel.”
She was right on one point: the thing looked as dangerous as any monster in a fairytale. And yet, Kyle didn’t think so. Kyle saw something in the beast that made him think, maybe, just maybe, they were going to come out of this okay. Not a whisper of duplicity existed on that large mug. Kyle sensed something good in this creature, just as he saw something good in Noirah. He did what felt natural and chose to trust.
“Just kinda big and hairy. It could have eaten us already, if it wanted to. Or broken our legs so we couldn’t get out,” he said, watching the beast go about its business. It occasionally snuck a glance at the two children, but didn’t give any ‘I’m going to eat you’ vibes.
“This is an interesting little change. Just a minute ago you were so scared you couldn’t utter a word. Or should I amend my statement? You couldn’t utter a coherent word. Unless myenome has now entered the human vernacular without my knowledge, which I doubt, or else you know some other language that I don’t, the chances of which are equally miniscule,” Noirah whispered harshly.
“I took high school French, I’ll have you know.” Noirah rolled her eyes, and he realized that wasn’t her point. He continued his defense, “Maybe I was a little afraid at first, but it hasn’t done anything wrong!”
“Then maybe we should leave before that thing has a chance to shatter your illusion that the world is safe and worthy of your trust when it shatters your skull,” Noirah replied in a matter-of-fact manner. Before either could come up with a brilliant plot of escape, the beast turned around and stepped away from the fire, giving it one last prod. The two adolescents just looked from the beast to the fire, which Kyle had to admit looked very inviting.
The beast gestured to the flames. “Go, warm, dry. Nobody eat, maybe bear, not me,” the beast said, attempting to smile. Noirah remained unusually quiet, so Kyle with unusual courage decided to take the reins.
“You heard what we said?” Kyle asked meekly, measuring his words carefully.
“I not bad. No smash skull, no eat for dinner.” The beast warily moved towards them in an attempt not to frighten. Kyle reciprocated the motion and shuffled closer to the warmth of the flames; Noirah, however, sat unmoved, ingesting the features of the beast. The fear had left her face. Then she stood suddenly and took three deliberate steps toward the beast. She clinically examined the beast and finally began to smirk.
“No stare,” the beast insisted once more with a whine.
Noirah leaned closer to the fire: the beast drew away. Kyle watched fascinated by the shift in power. “No, you’re not bad, are you? A little too big and ugly perhaps, but not evil.” Content that she had attained control of the room, Noirah sat down and stretched out her legs.
“Do you have a name?”
“So, Mogren” Noirah began thoughtfully, watching the beast’s every movement with a sharp eye which made Mogren highly uncomfortable, “You’re the monster that haunts these woods, huh? You’re the thing that everyone’s so afraid of?”
The beast shrugged its shoulders. “No monster. Bad people, no monster.”
Noirah’s eyebrows raised, her eyes flashed. Kyle’s own interest was piqued by the mention of bad people.
“What kind of bad people? Hunters?” Noirah asked, attempting to sound indifferent. Even Kyle, however, could hear a slight quiver in her voice.
“People hunters. Bad hurt the people,” the beast replied.
“The bad people were hurting other people? Recently? In these woods?” Noirah enunciated each word carefully, so there would be no miscommunication between her and the beast. This time, Kyle could definitely hear her voice faltering.
“Hurt, yes. Very bad happen. You safe now.”
“What do you mean now? Were we not safe before?”
“Man not far. Not come to cave. Me you safe.”
“A man wasn’t far? We could have been killed or something?” Kyle yelled, his voice a pitch that he hadn’t heard since he hit puberty. He looked to the entrance of the cave. Out there someone had almost ended him and he had no idea; he had been walking blissfully ignorant of any impending danger. This beast, whom they both approached with apprehension, had saved them not only from the rain, but something much worse. What were Noirah’s parents thinking letting them roam in a forest abounding with crazy people? They were children!
“Kill maybe,” Mogren affirmed.
“Thank you,” Noirah whispered. Her voice sounded soft in its genuineness.
“Thank you?” the beast questioned.
“Yeah. Thank you.” She searched the roof and waved her arms in front of her in a tight circular motion, “Thanks it means -- it just means I owe you one and I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to repay you.”
If Noirah were a more superstitious person, she would have thought that the world was trying to send her a message: don’t go. Stay where you are. Even if the world sent a monsoon, a torrent of raging storms, she’d carry on. If she stayed where she was, she’d stop being; her existence would blow out with the next, lightest breeze. Yet the next lightest breeze almost came upon her unsuspecting. She stared out the cave. “Yes, thank you, Mogren.”
The rain was coming to an end. An occasional drop could be heard hitting the ground, but whether they were droplets from the trees or those from the sky, Kyle couldn’t tell. His attention had drifted between watching the storm rage outside and observing Noirah when she had attempted to teach Mogren how to speak ‘like a proper person.’ A different sort of storm had started to brew within the walls of the cave as Mogren and Noirah had grown increasingly frustrated with each other. The educational experiment ended when Noirah and Mogren had shouted at each other, the booming voice of each thundered in the alcove.
“Are you even listening to me?” Noirah had demanded.
“No grunt, me talk!”
Noirah had swung her arms wildly, emphatically pointing at Mogren, “There, you grunted just then! Have you no concept of syntax? Or do you simply delight in torturing me?”
They had stood facing each other fuming. Finally Noirah conceded that Mogren was not, in fact, a proper person at all and that she spoke just as a proper beast ought. Things settled after that. Now Noirah and Kyle sat and listened to Mogren tell the story of her family and her people, a history ignored by the kingdom. The language was stilted, but Noirah, possessing an ability to stitch together a whole narrative from the string of fragments, translated the most confounded bits for Kyle, somehow knowing when he needed that help. Kyle closed his eyes and just listened.
Once upon a time, Mogren’s people roamed freely in the forests, happy and safe from care. Her community was tightknit. Everyone supported one another in their survival and they had done so long before the humans ever arrived. Then one day the humans had come and penetrated the forest, surprised at the discovery of Mogren’s ancestors there; Mogren’s people were equally shocked by this foreign arrival. For some time, relations had been amicable; each clan respected the boundaries of the other. Mogren was born in the time of peace, making her by Noirah’s estimation nearly 100. But then times began to change. People began to run from the kingdom and search for new places to live. They saw nothing more than animals in the beasts who loomed in the shadows; they were the frightening tales told to children about monsters in the forest. Then the battles arose between the different groups of men and these conflicts began to affect Mogren’s kin. They wanted nothing to do with it. They enjoyed their peace. And not so long ago the decision was made to leave and find a new place, a safe place, immune from the encroaching threat. Far removed from the violence, her tribe bided their time until the humans destroyed themselves and they could return, if the men left behind anything worth returning to.
Mogren, however, liked the people, she felt curiosity for their odd customs and language. She was intrigued by their strange desire to destroy each other when her own people would never behave so hatefully. Mogren felt like she could help the people whom she saw innocently hurt by the baddies. Mogren made a choice to stay. Maybe someday things would settle down and then peace could come between the two groups again. Maybe someday her family would return to her. Right now, she helped and she was glad to. Kyle was glad as well. Because of her, he was safe and alive. One small choice, one great beast, made all the difference.
“You do need a nicer place in which to live. This cave is so bleak,” Noirah observed, leaning back onto her hands. Then it hit her. She dove into her bag and pulled out a little stuffed bear with a missing ear. “It’s not much, but look!” She placed it down where the embers of the fire had died away, “Kind of looks nicer already. And now you have something to remember us by. A little teddy beast for a big, filthy beast.”
“Oh wait! Me too!” Kyle cried out, reaching into his own bag. He searched it trying to find something. Then he thought of it. The most perfect gift ever.
“It’s a comic.” Noirah groaned and Kyle ignored it, “It’s the X-men and there’s a character called the Beast and he kind of looks like you, maybe, a little --he’s blue and a boy -- but he helps people and he’s a superhero, like you.”
Mogren carefully took the book in her hand and then scooped up the bear. “Thank you,” she said, bearing her sharp, yellow teeth at Noirah and Kyle in a smile.
“Graciousness, can’t believe that’s what I taught you. All that time wasted on speech lessons and that’s what you gained?” She picked up her bag, “Well, rain seems to have stopped, so off we go.”
“No go,” Mogren stated, placing both gifts carefully on the ground.
“As lovely as it is here, we can’t stay forever, Mogren,” Noirah insisted.
“You no go,” she pressed, rising up from the ground, looking agitated.
“We yes go.”
“But bad people.”
The beast began to pace up and down, her nostrils flaring as she grunted in a low foreboding tone. For reasons, which Kyle could not understand, Mogren seemed to care about their fates. She barely knew them.
“Yes, I know, bad people who maim and kill are lurking in the forest and almost made the two of us a memory earlier. However, we have business to which we must attend and I would rather take my chances out in the woods than sit here cowering in fear for the rest of my days.”
“Then I come.” Both Noirah and Kyle quickly turned their heads, shocked at what they had heard.
“You don’t have to,” Noirah answered.
“Go with Newrah and Kyle. Thank you.”
“Yes, well, fine. You can come along. Perhaps I can teach you how to pronounce my name properly in the meanwhile.”
Mogren leapt out of her cave, already sniffing at the air, on guard against threats. Kyle walked out with Noirah.
“You know, that was a nice thing giving Mogren your bear. Some people might say that you’re too nice,” Kyle suggested.
“No,” Noirah shook her head, “no, Kyle, some people wouldn’t say that at all.”
“Am I expected to believe you for even a second?” Noirah exclaimed, looking at Kyle skeptically. Kyle was smiling widely, delighting in the recently shared anecdote which was so much funnier in retrospect. When he had lived through it, he had been mortified, but now, well now he could look back and smile.
“I couldn’t make something up like that if I tried,” Kyle answered back.
Noirah nodded in agreement, “True, true. You’re not exactly the great raconteur of our times or, I imagine, your times.” She shoved him lightly in jest. Merriment had prevailed for this leg of the journey. Noirah had even jumped on Mogren’s back and the beast ran about, giving the girl a piggyback ride. After such an adventurous morning, the respite was a relief. It was nice to know that they could still have fun, despite everything else.
“I’ll have you know that I’m a great ratcontour.”
“Raconteur? Do you even know what that means?” Noirah replied with a half-grin.
“Well, no, but I am one,” Kyle retorted, “Besides, I like it. It makes me sound fancy or smart. I’m Kyle Walters, professional rockontur.”
“I’m basically one hundred percent smarter when I walk next to you,” Noirah teased.
Up ahead Mogren stopped. She turned around to face them, signaling for the two to stop as well. Noirah heeded the command, while Kyle, unaware of his environment, continued on. She grabbed Kyle by the collar and pulled him back.
“Hey!” Kyle yelped. Noirah narrowed her eyes at him, tacitly ordering him to shut up.
“Listen,” Noirah instructed. Kyle strained his ears, trying to hear what both Noirah and Mogren were able to perceive. Nothing. He heard nothing. But he could see. And what he saw was Mogren’s fur standing on end. He could see Noirah’s face harden. He could see and feel everything around him grow tense. It was as though the world was shifting winds as it heard what approached the threesome.
“There,” Noirah yelled in a whisper, her right arm shooting forward, as she zeroed in on the source of what she was hearing. Mogren nodded and crept closer to the two teens, keeping low to the ground with barely a sound. The beast’s nose was twitching non-stop. Every one of Mogren’s faculties seemed on full-alert.
“You stay,” Mogren told the two of them in a low growl, one which shocked Kyle into obedience, but had quite the opposite effect on Noirah. She was livid. Red burnt just behind the green of her eyes. Her cheeks warmed to a pink in the heat of her rage. Her hair seemed to fly up and swirl, as though a gust of wind had come up to support her ire.
“I will not --” she began, every word seemed to have sucked its essence from a mystical power source beneath the ground, reverberating with a strength which made Kyle quiver. She went on, “I will not stand aside, because you see me as some weak, little girl, while you take care of the big, bad men. I can and I will fight my own battles.” She then added in a quick undertone, “You’re welcome to help, if it pleases you.”
Mogren was quiet for a moment, staring the girl down. Then she shook her head. “No, stay. He boy stay, you too. Stay safe.”
The beast leapt off without allowing Noirah another word, but that wasn’t about to stop her. Only Kyle’s hand latching onto her arm impeded her forward motion. She stopped and looked at Kyle’s hand as though with a simple withering glance she could cause it gangrene.
“Let go,” she ordered. Kyle’s hand fell, the words possessing a magical incantation which he could not fight. Noirah, instead of heading off again, offered Kyle the opportunity to speak his piece.
“I was just wondering,” he began slowly, “if you really thought that running off into danger was the best idea.”
“No, not the best, but I am not going to sit idly while someone else handles my problems. No. No.” Noirah started walking backwards and pointed out an accusatory finger at Kyle. “You may be a coward, but I’m not. I am not letting Mogren face this alone.”
“Will you be helping Mogren if you off and get yourself killed?” Kyle proposed, remaining glued to his spot in the forest. She shrugged her shoulders, turned and then sprinted away. Kyle decided to remain as Mogren had requested, hoping to catch some type of sign that something was happening. The forest proved to be an absolute vacuum. He felt alone and small, surrounded by the tall, motionless trees, without even a bird bringing life to the place. More than that he felt completely useless. Kyle struggled with his desire to remain safe or follow those before him and put himself at risk. It was a small decision, but a huge choice. He shuffled his feet, rustling the leaves underneath. He couldn’t stand it: he had to go. He wasn’t a coward. His mother did not raise him to be one. His father certainly wasn’t. Whether they knew or not, he wasn’t about to disappoint either. He could do this.
Kyle, at a slower pace than the two before him, headed down the same path. He grimaced as he heard the leaves crinkling beneath his clomping feet. Why was it so loud? It didn’t take too long before his ears perked up at an indistinct sound. He thought that he heard Noirah shout and Mogren growl and then a loud thwacking sound. He dropped down into the bushes and started to crawl, creeping forward tentatively. Then it happened: he bumped into something. No, wait, it was not a something. It was a boot. Those were big, muddy boots that could cause serious damage to Kyle’s face, if whoever happened to be wearing those massive things opted to swing it. Kyle froze.
“Whacha doin’ down there, kid?” the boot wearer asked. Kyle still didn’t move. No part of his body seemed willing so much as to twitch. The man nudged his shoulder with the toe of his boot. “Gonna answer the question there, junior?”
Kyle choked out a few indecipherable sounds. The man chuckled frigidly, while he squatted down to Kyle’s frozen shape. “Not so brave as your pals, huh?” He took Kyle’s chin in his hand between his forefinger and thumb and raised it. Kyle’s neck stretched uncomfortably taut and exposed. The dryness of his mouth was made more pronounced as he tried to swallow. His heart was pounding. “That little girl braver than you?”
“I’m, I’m plenty brave,” Kyle replied, straining to get the words out, his eyes darting around.
“You seem it, cowerin’ on the ground an’ all.”
Kyle struggled to take a breath but managed to answer. “I tripped. I was running to fight and I tripped. I was running really fast.”
“Hm, runnin’ really fast, that it? That why you’re pantin’ like a dog?”
The man leered and Kyle forced himself to maintain steady eye contact. He was not a coward. No, not a coward. Where was Mogren? And Noirah? Why was he here all alone? Why didn’t he stay where he was? Oh God, oh God. What if something happened to his friends? What if something was about to happen to him? Keep eye contact, Kyle ordered himself. His stomach clenched and he could feel the vomit crawling up his throat. He scrunched his eyes and took a breath, keeping the nausea at bay, trying to stop the shaking.
“So if you were runnin’ to fight, then might as well get up. Don’t like kickin’ a fella when he’s down, unless it was my hand that put him there.” The man rose, while Kyle remained on his hands and knees for a few moments.
Okay, it was now or never. He had to get up. He would fight. He had to fight. He could fight. He pushed himself up to his feet and swayed. He was not afraid. Well, he was a little afraid. Yes, he was a lot afraid. Are you happy?
This man looked a lot bigger when taken in full view. What kind of fight could Kyle put up? He had never hit anyone in his life. He rarely raised his voice. Why on Earth was this man, an adult, even looking to fight Kyle, a child? Kyle looked up into the trees, waiting to feel Mogren’s strong hands lifting him up once more.
The man cracked his knuckles, “Come on, little man.”
“I just, mind if I stretch a little? I really like to stretch before I fight. You know, it helps with arm extension,” Kyle stuttered, desperately trying to buy a minute or two more for Mogren. Come on, Mogren. He swung his arms around to loosen them, partaking in some shadow boxing. It felt unnatural. He didn’t know how to punch. It seemed like something that should come naturally to a person, but nope, not him. How in the world was this a thing that was actually happening? What did this man plan on doing? Roughing him up? Killing him? Was he really going to do that to Kyle? Just beat the life out of him? Shit, he really didn’t want to get hit. In life, Kyle really prioritized the avoidance of pain.
The man approached. Kyle tried to picture his mother, but the image blurred in and out of focus. His mother, what if he never saw her again? What if she never saw him again? The man got closer. Kyle squeezed his eyes shut.
“Easier to fight with your eyes open,” the man quipped.
Kyle shook his head, clenching his eyes tighter. “No, thank you.” This wasn’t real. No, it couldn’t be. He was going to wake up. This was the time in a dream when he should realize that he was only asleep and safe. No, not this time. This time he felt very much awake. He felt very real terror. He felt so very far away from the comfort of his bed.
There was a roar, then a thump. Kyle opened his eyes. Mogren was sitting atop the man’s chest, hitting his head against the ground. Mogren didn’t look herself. For the first time, Kyle saw what she was capable of. He didn’t like it, so he decided to close his eyes again. Then it was silent. When Kyle’s eyes opened, he saw that his former threat laid motionless on the ground. He himself sank down to a crouch, and crawled over to the man. Then with a shaking hand he reached for the man’s neck, scared that the man at any moment might open his eyes, and felt for a pulse. It was there. He didn’t know why he cared, but he did. He stared at this stranger, who had reached deep inside Kyle and changed something. Did Kyle do the same to him or would he go home and sit down at the dinner table as though none of this happened? What was the proper protocol after terrorizing a child? And what should Kyle do? What do you do when someone threatens you without cause? Kyle looked up at Mogren. What do you do when you see the consequence of someone’s passion for your defense and safety? What happens when violence, for good or bad, collides and you have to watch and figure out what any of it means?
“Come,” Mogren commanded. Kyle stood up on shaking legs, ready to obey.
Mogren moved quickly, Kyle found it difficult to keep up. The brush was dense and prickly, and scratched Kyle’s arms. Up ahead Mogren leapt into a clearing and stopped. Kyle jogged to catch up. Noirah came into view. She was standing just behind Mogren who was digging furiously. A tall, dark tree supported her. She had obviously seen some action. Between the rain, the cave and whatever happened in those moments that they were separated, her regularly pristine appearance had dissolved. Mud and grass stains streaked her white, button-down shirt which was now untucked and torn at the shoulder. Her face, likewise, showed signs of filth and looked to have been scratched just above her left eye. And those eyes, dull and hollow, were staring down at the ground just in front of Mogren, gazing at something hidden from Kyle’s line of sight. But from the look, the strangely dead look on her face, he knew nothing good had arisen from whatever had happened.
Kyle took a step closer and then he saw it, right there in front of him: that was a body, a lifeless body. Kyle had never seen a dead body, but there one rested in a big, bloody, contorted heap, an unmoving bloody heap. The air spun in his lungs and his head whirled. Finally he understood what Noirah’s eyes so aptly told.
“What happened?” he asked, his eyes unable to look away from the man’s unmoving form. Only Noirah’s lack of response compelled him to lift his head. He was surprised to find her glaring at him.
“You have a leaf in your hair. You should remove it,” she stated, her voice having a hostile edge. He reached up and removed the rogue leaf as a means of appeasing her. Her attention, however, was no longer on him. It was all too much: it was death, but it was a death without a person. That thing might as well have been log. Kyle wiped his sleeve across his face, that thing could be his father.
Kyle noticed that Mogren had stopped digging, and resting her elbows on her knees, she let her head fall into her dirty hands. A heavy lethargy settled on her shoulders. Then Kyle’s eyes moved again to the body. A dead, lifeless, inert corpse. Something morbid inside of him wanted to poke the face. What would it matter? The man certainly wouldn’t know. Kyle could poke his face all day and endure no consequence. The man was no more feeling than a rock. Thankfully, he was able to squelch the desire. Without his initial notice, Mogren had begun to dig once more. She was making tremendous strides in her work. For the first time upon arriving, the reason for the digging dawned upon Kyle: a grave. She was digging a grave.
“We’re going to bury him?” Kyle squeaked out.
“What would you have us do, keep him out here to rot?” Noirah asked. Kyle once again felt that he was the instrument of her frustration. He noticed that her hands were shaking when she ran them through her hair. Her whole frame was, in fact, shaking.
“It’s just...we didn’t know him. And, you know, he and his friend tried to kill us. It’s not like they would have returned the favor if things turned out differently.”
“I agree. This is far more than he deserves.” Noirah cleared her throat and then continued in a steady, dignified air, “But I will not let that man...he will not make me change my morals. This is the right thing to do, no matter how terrible he is, was. We are all born human at one point, after all. All humans have rights. I believe that everyone is due basic rights.” Then to herself, as though the words might make the vague idea a real substantial truth, she repeated, “This is the right thing to do and we are what we do.” Then she looked to Kyle with a questioning glance, “It’s harder to do the right thing now, but it’s still the right thing.” Her hand unconsciously pulled at the frayed threads of her sleeve where it had been torn. “It means more now.”
The time went by too slowly for anyone’s liking. Kyle kept looking from the body to Noirah and then back to the body. More than anything, he felt like an intruder. He had fallen into a picture someone took and was forced to sit and watch as the scene played out. There was nothing that could be real about this, but everything was. The ground on which he sat was as solid as any from before. The sweat dripping from the ends of his hair, just as wet. The fallen leaves as crinkly. But the smell. That smell of death was...it was real, but wrongly new, miles beyond his scope of experience. He was trapped and living someone else’s life. How could a man, who no longer existed, assault his senses so strongly? No, not a man, a body. That’s all it could be to Kyle, but that body must have meant much more to someone else. To someone else that body was a person. Or maybe it meant nothing at all.
Finally Mogren picked the body up and swung it into the hole, quickly tossing in dirt to cover it. Kyle couldn’t watch. If he closed his eyes, he could pretend that he was okay.
“Come on, we’ve lost a lot of time, but we have to get to Sal’s.” They had to keep going.
“Well, I suppose this is where we part ways, wouldn’t you say?” Noirah asked, looking out to the city walls, just past the long field in front of them. The walls, dark and ivy-consumed, extended endlessly on either side of the large, wrought-iron gate, the rust of which the distance concealed. And hidden just beyond the tall, imposing walls was the capital city, Kallipolis. Kyle looked out; he was so close. He could just make out the dots of lights of the homes and shops. Oz spread out before his eyes.
All three stood still on the barrier of the forest. Mogren was less interested in the city and more so in her charges. She stared at each and then grunted with a nod. “I go now. But you safe. You be safe now.”
“Well, thanks. Really, thank you,” Kyle added. It seemed slight when considering all Mogren had done for them, but it was better than nothing. He looked to Noirah, expecting her to add her own sign of gratitude, but she was silent with her eyes glued to the ground, as she had been for the majority of their walk since the altercation. Kyle both wanted to know what happened and didn’t at all.
“Thanks,” Mogren murmured to herself, “Welcome, friends.”
“Yeah, thank you, friend,” Kyle replied, reaching out to pat Mogren’s furry shoulder.
Mogren cooed. Then she turned and leapt up, grabbing hold of a low branch and swung to a much higher one in a nearby tree. Kyle stared up at her in admiration.
“Stop mooning and let’s go.”
Kyle began to walk with Noirah, but took a quick look back and was surprised, or not so surprised, to see Mogren still sitting in the high branch. He waved and Mogren howled loudly at the moon. What an eclectic group of friends Kyle had accumulated in his short time here. Dani would flip with jealousy if she knew that he was friends with a talking beast.
“It’s really lovely.” Noirah commented, her eyes surveying what was above. Kyle looked up as well, and was amazed at the sheer amount of stars flashing in the inky sky, a greater show of lights than the city in front of them.
“Yeah,” Kyle agreed.
Noirah lifted up her hand and attempted to brush a part of the greatness above her. Sometimes she felt so close, but sadly, every time she reached out, she realized it was all an illusion. It all existed millions of light years away, some of those stars were already dead, shining as an echo of what was alive. And far off in the future, in the distance, on a planet that might not even exist, a person not yet born might be staring at her sun, at her planet and see the ghost of her world. They were all just shadows, ghosts that were always on the brink of life, wandering through an incomprehensible universe. The great, complicated cosmos were lovely and she felt lovely within it. She was like every other human who could make great ripples, tiny little humans who looked up and saw something wonderful and wanted to reflect that greatness right back. She touched the cut above her eye and was reminded of just how small she actually was.
Kyle’s hand followed hers and reached up to her brow. She grabbed his hand and pulled it down. He thought that she might yell and hit him, but she didn’t. Instead she offered him an answer to his unspoken question.
“I made a mistake. I ran and this guy comes out of nowhere and grabs me. I tried to fight him off, but he was just too big. He threw me down on the ground like I was nothing. And -- ” she stopped, and stared at the stars again. “Mogren came and she went wild. All I could do was sit there and watch. I was terrified of what could have happened and what did happen. And I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Nothing we say can change anything.” She bit her lip. “I always imagined myself as such a force; I might not be as strong as I think I am.”
She quickened her pace and Kyle dutifully followed. “I’m sorry,” he said, reaching out to take her hand in his, to give her comfort, but stopped cold when she glared.
“Unnecessary. Unless you were apologizing for bringing up a topic about which I clearly don’t want to talk.”
Kyle didn’t say a word back, but couldn’t prevent a ray of sympathy from shining out of his eyes. Noirah’s head fell back as she released a groan, “You must stop that.” When Kyle looked at her blankly, she passed her hand out in front of him, gesturing to his entire posture. “This, this innocence and sweetness. This complete, I don’t even know what to call it!” she exclaimed throwing up her hands in defeat. She then grew serious, “You really need to toughen up.” Kyle’s eyes began to drift up ahead in curiosity, but Noirah took his chin and drew his attention once more to her face. It was stony, yet soft in its earnestness to deliver her message. “Listen to me, once we pass those gates, don’t you dare do that thing you do where you look around all childlike, like everything is so new and magical and must be scrutinized with wide-eyed exuberance. Innocence and naiveté get devoured in there. They’re piranhas and they’ll smell you out. You’re a target to begin with, considering who and what you are.”
“I can be tough,” Kyle argued. Noirah didn’t look convinced, nor did he believe his own words. Moreover, if the forest had taught him anything today, it was that he was a boy. Less so than he was before, but still just a boy. The world could be a frightful place for someone like him and here threats existed that he had never had to face before. But Kyle did face them and would continue to do so and he felt better knowing that he’d have Noirah at his side through it all.
The two stopped in front of the black gates and looked up at the towering structure. Once upon a time those gates were much more inviting. But now one hung by a hinge, looking as though someone made an attempt to tear it off and the other looked rusted in place. Dark, thorny shrubs grew below and hung above, intertwined within the iron portals. Through time and neglect what was once a brilliant sight had deteriorated into the broken, iron jaws of the city. It made Kyle feel like he was about to be swallowed whole, except he was walking right into the mouth of the dreaded animal.
“We’ll be okay?” Kyle asked, “We’ll make it alright?”
“Yeah, why not?” she answered, crossing her arms in front of her in a hug. “I used to live in this city.”
They shared a look and made the decision to push forward. Noirah entered first with Kyle right behind her. He took a deep breath and stepped past the gates and into a short, cavernous tunnel. The air inside felt heavy and stale. Above their heads dripped water the color of which Kyle was glad he couldn’t decipher. Their quick steps echoed, as they hurried to the other side. Upon exiting Kyle could see the city lights far off, but the immediate area was dark. Lampposts stood at regular intervals along the street, but the half that weren’t broken emitted grimy, faltering half beams of light that barely combatted the darkness. The streets were crowded with short, brick apartment complexes. Some windows were boarded, some showed life, most were barred. A sepia tone diffused throughout the reality as though a world had tried to build itself upon a picture of city long ago and slowly crumbled into ruin instead.
“This way,” Noirah guided, roughly tugging Kyle’s arm, turning him left. Kyle peeked to the side. A thin man with even thinner eyes leaned against the wall, coming in and out of focus under the flickering spotlight of a lamp. Thick clumps of greasy, brown hair hung down on his forehead. When the man and Kyle made eye contact, the man just lifted the right corner of his mouth in a sardonic smile, causing a rush of cold air to speed down Kyle’s spine. The man, noticing his effect, barked loudly. Kyle jumped and landed on a pothole onto a solid body. He quickly leapt up. A moment later a large rat ran out and snuck into a drain beneath the city. No, this wasn’t Farmingdale, nor was it the majestic capital city that he imagined.
Noirah took hold of his arm. “Ignore him. He won’t do anything.” But the whole episode put her nerves further on edge. She reached into her bag and grabbed the keys, just in case they required a hasty entrance.
“We’re almost there. It’s just a little bit further down this way. 212, 214, 216, at least I assume that’s a six, and here we are 218. Come on.” Noirah pulled open a door which led to a staircase. They both hurried in.
Three squeaky staircases later and they were standing in front of Uncle Sal’s apartment door. Noirah stuck the proper key in the lock, jiggled it around and finally unlocked the door.
“Welcome to chez Sal. Not much, but it is a place to sleep,” Noirah said, as she opened the door to a tiny, dingy, stale-smelling apartment, nearly knocking over a precariously placed coatrack with a single coat hanging on it. She walked over to an olive-green couch with frayed edges and picked up a lumpy looking pillow. She gave it a sniff, then threw it back down and looked around. “A small but very important step above sleeping on the streets. But sadly it looks like Sal is out.”
The place looked worse than she had last remembered, definitely less furnished. When Sal had first moved in -- she had barely reached his chest back then-- the place had character or that’s what Sal had called it. Now the dim-colored wall paper was peeling from the walls. Water stains grew dark above their heads. The light fixture in the middle of the room had only one functioning bulb. The couch had remained, but it looked a million years old. A roughed-up table, a housewarming gift from her father, on which a thousand papers were scattered, sat near a tiny, opaque window, the only window in the place. Even if you could look through it, there was nothing to see but the fire escape of the building next door. Then there was that smell that permeated and assaulted Noirah’s nose. In the few years since her last visit the place had quickly rotted away.
She walked over to the ‘kitchen,’ nothing but an offshoot of the single room and ran her finger along the counter. She shook her head at the amount of dust that now adhered to her finger. Sal was never tidy -- he thrived in clutter -- but he was never unclean. She peeked into a cabinet and found it sadly empty. Something felt wrong about all of this. Had Sal deserted the apartment? They hadn’t heard from him in years. She leaned against the counter.
“I used to dream about living here as a kid. Then again I also dreamed of owning a pony. Both those dreams smell the same now.” She got annoyed when she realized that Kyle wasn’t even listening to her; instead he shifted from foot-to-foot, looking antsy. “What’s wrong with you? Didn’t take you to be the uppity type.”
“Bathroom?” Kyle asked, his face registering his own reservations about the place.
She grimaced. “It has one, but I don’t know what’ll be living in it,” she replied, pointing to the door across the room from her. “Best of luck, pal.”
“Thanks?” He tentatively made his way over, feeling like someone had given him a death sentence.
Noirah, however, continued her perusal of the place, running the faucet on and off, glad to see that there was still running water, even if it was a little brown. This place made her look forward to the palace, something that she never thought would happen again.
Her lazy observations were interrupted when Kyle ran out of the bathroom with a shout.
“Oh my God!” Kyle exclaimed, slamming the door shut, ignoring the screamed out expletives on the other side. He ran across the room and hid behind the couch which smelled pungently soggy.
“What! What is it?!” she yelled ducking behind a corner. Kyle, squatting low to the ground, looked back at her and pointed over the couch to the bathroom door.
“There is someone...in there...with a knife,” Kyle whispered in broken phrases, trying to get his heart to return to a pace that didn’t make him feel like it was about to shoot out of his chest and onto to the opposing wall.
“Are you sure?” she whispered back urgently. Kyle nodded. Both eyed the door, which was now beginning to open slowly. A hand clutching a blood-stained, silver razor stretched forth from the opening.
“Show yourself!” the voice from inside the bathroom yelled, waving the hand.
Noirah stood up and shook her head. “It’s just me, Uncle Sal. You can put away the cutlery.” She looked to Kyle, who was still crouching behind the couch, “It’s fine, Kyle. It’s just Uncle Sal.”
Sal exited the bathroom, pressing a dark towel against his cheek. “Noirah, you’re here with a person whom I don’t know and was prepared to stab.” He gave them a goofy wave with his free hand, “Hello.”
Noirah rushed over and flung herself into the man who enveloped her with an arm. Sal was tall and gangly, though his height was exaggerated in comparison to Noirah’s. His hair was black, like the rest of the Tillard clan, and flopped into his eyes in a careless fashion. He was pale like Noirah, but gaunter. His cheeks were just beginning to hollow and tiny lines were starting to branch out from his eyes, but he nevertheless retained a youthful and friendly mien. His eyes were green and gleaned with the same keen intellect as his family, but possessed a playful spark. His lips curled in a nearly perpetual smile. The shabbiness of his apartment, however, mirrored the shabbiness of his attire, the ragged remains of a professor’s tweed. He was at once the boy in the picture that Bernice had shown them and a man who had experienced things that the boy never dreamed for himself.
Noirah nestled herself closer to him. “The gods, I’m glad you’re here.” She pulled down the towel revealing a bloody gash. She quickly brought his hand back to its original position. “Self-defense works better when you attack the other person.”
“Ha. I was a little surprised, to say the least. Imagine if you were shaving and someone walked in on you! But a wound well worth it to see your face.” The man chuckled and brought his hand to his cut. Once he inspected his finger, he smiled. “Stopped bleeding. Great. Now,” he turned his attention to Kyle, “who are you?”
“I’m Kyle, Kyle Walters,” Kyle answered.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Kyle, Kyle Walters.” Sal beamed brilliantly and tipped an imaginary hat at him in greeting. Then he swung himself around and sat down on the armrest of the couch. “Couldn’t you figure that I was here, with the lights and all? Do I seem like the type of person who leaves his lights on willy-nilly? What happened to your deductive abilities?” he asked Noirah.
“Nothing. You’ve never had sense when it comes to money. If you were starving, you’d give your last dollar to the beggar next door.” She followed his footsteps and sat down in the couch next to him. He placed his hand atop of her head and lifted her face to inspect the cut above her eye while wiping a bit of dirt off her chin.
“Looking a bit like a beggar yourself. Kids came here late, any one bother you along the way?” His thumb drifted from her chin to her forehead, “Or did you have an accident shaving as well?”
“It’s nothing, so leave it alone,” she barked, swatting his hand away. She then added more gently, “This place seems worse than the last time I saw it.” She gave her uncle a look of concern. He brushed it off easily with another charming smile.
“Eh, you’ve grown soft. Not much has changed here.” He scanned his apartment. “Maybe a little. Well, maybe a lot, but nothing much at all. All the important stuff is the same. Just the little things have taken a turn.” Sal rumpled the towel in his hands. For a moment he appeared grieved. Life sometimes pressed upon him, but what was to be done? He slapped his knees and roused himself from his self-indulgence and found some cheer. He could always find something to be cheerful about. His parents raised him and Frank to lift themselves up out of the gloom. Sometimes, especially now, it got hard for him, but never quite bad enough to lose all hope. What was the joy of life without the pleasure afforded by a little hope, a little dream of a different tomorrow?
“Now then, got a reason for coming here? Joy to see you, but a little surprising.”
“A visit to the palace,” Noirah answered in a falsely bright voice.
“Seeing old friends?” Sal asked.
“Friends?” Kyle’s ears perked up.
“I told you that my dad worked there as the king’s advisor. Did you think that I wouldn’t be able to make a friend or two in the meanwhile?” Noirah demanded sharply, more sharply than the innocent question had merited.
“Ease up on the boy, Noirah. And you,” he gestured to Kyle, “you ease up too. Feet must be killing you with all that walking -- can’t imagine you took the train in -- take a seat, get comfortable. You make me nervous standing there, looming over my shoulder.”
“A train?” Kyle exclaimed, obeying Sal’s orders and sitting down, “There’s a train and we walked?”
“Can’t get on the train because you don’t have a pass. Oh! That’s right. He doesn’t have a pass!” Noirah drew her legs beneath herself and bounced in excitement on the couch. Her hands tapped his forearm. “You’ll love this! You know why he doesn’t have a pass?”
“Why is that, my dear niece?” Sal asked, rising from the sofa and walking over to the kitchen sink as he noticed the bit of blood staining his hand. As he turned on the water to wash it off, he heard the two children whispering back and forth in sharp, excited words. When Sal turned around, he found both kids staring at him excitedly.
Noirah elbowed Kyle, “Tell him already.”
Kyle was biting his lip with a look of anticipation. “I’m from the Outside,” he blurted out, looking pleased and nervous at the same time. Both children waited to see Sal’s reaction.
Sal stared as he dried his hands with the towel. “The Outside, huh? I’ve met a few of your people in my time. Surprised I couldn’t pick up on it sooner. You have a distinct aura about yourselves. Difficult to describe. One must experience it.” Sal pursed his lips, with the same look which Noirah had adopted before when they had discussed this issue. “Guess that’s why you’re off to see the king.” After he threw the towel on the counter, he walked back to the duo and addressed Noirah, “You ought to ask for a heart.” The jest won Sal a look of impatience from Noirah, the look of impatience which one normally reserves for when a parent decides to thoroughly and completely embarrass their child.
“How witty poverty has made you.” she replied coolly, “You seem to be taking the news in stride.”
“Yeah!” Kyle added, having expected his words to have the same effect that Noirah’s had. Everyone else seemed to pause and look in wonder when she told them where he was from, but Sal hardly batted an eyelid. He tried again, “I’m from the Outside. Like not outside, but from the Outside.” He waved his hands around to emphasize the greatness of the statement, “The Outside.”
“Yeah, got that, thanks.” Sal leaned over the arm rest, his face coming closer to Kyle’s. “Think I’ve been expecting something wild to happen. Can’t say that I expected you, but something. Something or someone from the Outside, why not? Why not you?” He quickly drew back and chuckled, only to have it broken by a yawn. Sal lifted his long arms over his head. “You kids must excuse me, but I was about to tuck in for the night before your arrival. If I knew I’d have company, I might have napped. Do that now: take naps. Lovely things. But let’s discuss this Outside a little bit more tomorrow. Kyle, I’d be delighted to hear what you have to say about where you live. Cars. Let’s take about those! You read about them, but suddenly you see them and zoom! Fly right by you.” He eyed his bedroom door longingly, despite his ardent desire to stay awake and chat. Life could tire a man out, even a formerly tireless man like Sal. His brain cried to stay awake, but his body shushed the protests. “You guys can make yourselves at home. I can sleep through parades these days. But yes, tomorrow, I want to hear everything.” He looked at Noirah sternly, “Everything, kid.”
“A good night’s sleep and there’ll be nothing to tell.” She jumped off the couch. “One more hug before bed?”
Sal opened his arms and accepted his niece. “I’m glad to see you, Noirah.”
“Everyone is.” Noirah lifted her head so that her chin was resting against her uncle’s chest. With wide, innocent eyes, she demurely inquired, “Since I have you here, might I ask what happened? I can count your ribs through this hug and your apartment is slowly decaying into decrepitude.”
Sal grimaced, then kissed her on the forehead, loosening his embrace. “Rough times. One has to make sacrifices. Not much use for writers anymore. Speaking of writing, decaying into decrepitude, some redundancy there.”
Noirah shoved him away, not ungently, and wrinkled her brow, “What about your teaching post?”
“Oh that?” Suddenly Sal found his hands of the utmost interest. He began to study his fingernails, looking like a boy whose parents found out that he had failed a test. “That, well, that just didn’t quite work out.” He cleared his throat in a nervous tic, “Long story short: the administration and I didn’t see eye to eye.” He dropped his hands, avoiding Noirah’s sharp, insightful gaze.
“My dad and Grams would gladly --”
“No, Noirah. When everything else disappears, a man likes to maintain at least his dignity. You can understand that.” He leaned over and kissed Noirah on the cheek. She attempted to persist in her disgruntled state, but his affectionate display softened her.
He then nodded at Kyle. “It’s a pleasure, Kyle Walters.” He paused for a moment, “Walters, huh?” He looked more closely at Kyle and smiled. “Something wild indeed.”
Sal went into his bedroom and the kids shared a look.
“He knew my parents. That’s why he thinks it’s wild,” Kyle informed.
“Yeah, I caught that. I’ve been with you every step of the way. In fact, I’ve been three steps ahead of you.” Noirah lethargically stretched out some kinks. “The old man had the right idea with sleep.”
The two got ready for bed. Noirah miserably flopped herself onto the couch with several springs poking uncomfortably into her back. Kyle, however, stood there and from the dim light sneaking through the dark window he could make out Noirah’s outline on the couch; he could hear her breathing. He stared until her eyes snapped open.
“What?” she asked.
He didn’t know; he hadn’t known since that moment. The two of them had gone through something and they had changed together, but completely separately.
“I just want you to know that you’re the strongest person I know and that you can still scare the bejeezus out of me, if that makes you feel better.”
She was quiet for a moment, then said, “A little.” She turned over on the couch and mumbled, “Now lie down and go to bed. That’s creepy, you standing there staring.”
“Can’t imagine what it’s like having someone watch you while you sleep,” Kyle griped, but nonetheless heeded her words, feeling absolutely bone-weary. Sleep beckoned but all he could do was stare up at the ceiling, afraid of what he would see when only the images in his head remained.
Then in the darkness, he heard Noirah’s voice, “Kyle?”
“I just wanted to let you know that you’re the strongest person that I know, too.”
“Okay, Noirah,” Kyle drawled, completely covered in the sarcasm that dripped from her words.
“No, really, Kyle, you’re my hero,” she answered back, letting a slight laugh bleed into her words.
“Kyle, I’m being really sincere here.” Her eyes twinkled bright like a cat’s in the darkness.
“Okay, Noirah. Thanks.”
He let his eyes close, but was still awake to hear her finals words.
“But of course, we both know that I’m joking.” Her own eyes closed, “Night, Superman.”