Kyle woke up and struggled to open his eyes. Once he did, he noticed that Noirah was gone. In her place Sal had sprawled himself with half of each leg dangling over the arm of the sofa and a book in front of his face. Kyle, having propped himself up on his elbows, watched him in an early morning trance.
“Woo, that’s frightening,” Sal gasped, as he finally let an eye wander over to where Kyle rested. Kyle blinked a few times before refocusing on the whole picture. Sal had put his book down and was now grinning at Kyle. “Morning.”
Sal observed Kyle’s face more closely and then added kindly, “Don’t worry, our lady Noirah is getting food as we speak.” In response to Kyle’s startled look, Sal continued once more. “You have the eyes of a starving man. One finds that a lot here.”
Kyle slowly squirmed his way up into a seated position and stared awkwardly at Sal who stared back with a grin. “Kyle Walters. Chris and Penny’s kid. Feels like another world here with you sitting there looking up at me.”
“Yeah, I get that.”
Sal patted the seat next to him, making room for Kyle to sit. Slowly Kyle pried himself off the floor and took a spot on the couch. After some maneuvering, he found a semi-comfortable spot within its lumpy, springy cushions. Sal put his arm around Kyle, leaning in conspiratorially. “You know, I could tell you things about your parents that you’d never believe. And I would if I didn’t think Penny’d come back and flay me. Your mom, probably the only woman, besides my mother, whom I loved. She and your father, gosh, they were really amazing. But what a scandal when he brought her back her. I’ll tell you that. I remember everyone was scandalized, but one of those fun scandalized. Just the kind of thing people would have expected from Chris.” Sal paused, then asked, “How much do you know about your father?”
Kyle played with the hem of his shirt, embarrassed about just how little he knew, and how much more people whom he didn’t know existed just a few days earlier did. “A little. Your mom said some stuff. My mom never really…” Kyle trailed off.
“Eh, well, it’s hard thing to talk about one’s alternate universe husband and not be thought of as a little batty. Let’s see what I’ve got.” Sal thought about what Kyle needed to hear. They didn’t have much time before they would part ways, and maybe never cross paths again. Oh, he had a myriad of tales. The things that Christopher could talk him into. For some time, Bernice didn’t want Sal befriending the Leonard boy, but then Chris opened his mouth and his sweet-honeyed words enchanted her. They could enchant anyone and on more than one occasion they needed his power of persuasion to persuade them out of trouble. But Christopher changed with Penny: she tamed him. What he had wanted in his youth altered. Sal thought about the day when Christopher came running over to tell him about Kyle. He had conjured up so many dreams for the son that he never knew, the son sitting next to Sal. When he saw Kyle’s face, he knew what was best, not some crazy tale of the antics of boys, but the truth of the man that Sal respected and loved.
“Your dad changed me, everyone. He had this aura. People wanted to be his friend and they would do things for him and he never even had to ask. To this day, people would still rally to his name. Before him, the Leonards had become a novelty piece. People you would want at a party, who could do you a favor. The talk of the town and the kingdom’s darlings. But Chris, he wanted more. He wanted to bring meaning back to his family’s legacy. He had this intensity. Sometimes it was frightening. Then he changed with your mom and with you. I don’t think that he knew he ever wanted a family, but then he got one and was so blissfully content. I had never seen him so happy.
“Oh, but words, they can’t describe what I saw and how he felt. You meant the world to him. He’d give everything up for you. When your parents found out that they had to run, he pulled every string, called in every favor to get you all out, but in the last moments he made a sacrifice so that you could be safe. Things were so complicated and rushed those last couple days. He had to circumnavigate a lot of rules. But he was always doing that. Christopher was...he didn’t really want to be in power, but when things started to go bad...he would do what he had to. He just wanted the world to be better. That intensified when he knew that he was making it better for you.”
“He was happy about me?” Kyle asked for reassurance.
“To the moon, kid.” Sal gently hugged Kyle’s shoulder.
“To the moon,” Kyle repeated softly. Soft waves of happiness washed over him, but after they left, he was left feeling a bit like a shipwrecked sailor who survived the storm but didn’t have much else to survive on. Great, his dad loved him, or at least the idea of him. But he wasn’t there. If only a few things had gone differently he might have been. That feeling of grief that gripped his gut last night returned: he spent eighteen years getting used to one idea and then a new truth came, and it hurt just as much. He wished Noirah would come home and offer him an apple so he could slap it out of her hand. That might make him feel better.
“Hey, here’s a bit of fun I saved,” Sal interjecting watching the dark clouds gathering in Kyle’s eyes. “On my journey to the Outside I had the singular pleasure of not only reuniting with your mother,” Sal lifted a finger in the air. He drew it down so that it was aimed at Kyle, “but I met you too. Long-standing friends, we are.” Kyle was a boy back then --they both were really -- but not so much now. You could spot an adult by a gleam in the eye, a small speck of understanding that flickers in and out, but always remains deep within. It hurt most when you found that look in the face of a child.
Kyle shook his head, racking his brain to see if he could remember ever seeing Sal at his house. There were very few times when his mother had a man over, but had one of them been Sal? Why couldn’t he remember?
Sal could read the thoughts on his face. “I don’t know that you would remember. You were a little guy back then, and it was a quick visit. You showed me a book. It was a nice book about a little dog and I think that he wanted to eat pudding and he dug holes --”
“The Pokey Little Puppy!” Kyle exclaimed. “That was my favorite book. I think that I might remember you? Maybe.”
“That puppy was a little pokey,” Sal answered, pleased as punch if Kyle could remember. The moment meant so much to Sal. “Couldn’t stay long. I really just wanted to make sure that you were both okay. Promised Chris that I’d watch out for you, if I could. Couldn’t do much at all. Didn’t want to give away your mother’s location. You know, just in case anyone was watching me. I was always a person of interest. Mostly because of my connection to your parents and my connections to my family but also because I’m interesting.”
For a moment the thought of his parents became secondary as Kyle gazed upon another person who had done what Kyle did only days earlier. This person had passed through a portal between their two worlds. “Hey, if you got there and back, then you can just tell me how to do it, right? Sure people aren’t allowed to go in and out anymore, but here I am and I promise I won’t tell anyone how I learned, if, you know, someone asks. If my mom asked, then maybe, but only her. But hell, she already know. Oh, also don’t tell her I just cursed, she hates when I do that.”
“Not so easy, the days of magic wardrobes and clicking ruby slippers have long since passed. Not that those were ever the way in and out.”
“But you still did it. Even I can usually find my way back to a door when I need to leave.”
Sal glanced at Kyle wryly. “Yes, the exit. Well you know about the portal?” Sal asked. When Kyle nodded in the affirmative, he continued, “So yes, the portal -- sounds so grand sometimes. The portal,” Sal playfully deepened his voice with a hand tragically acting the gravitas of his sentiment. Kyle attempted to look amused; Sal took his lack of this breezily, “In order to open the portal, you need a key -- that’s what we call it, a key, unlocking this fantastic door. Mind you, it’s not a traditional key, nothing physical, but an incantation, and probably some bit of technology, but isn’t it so much better with magic? I love a little myth in the real world: a happy escape when reality crushes you with its necessities. I say the words and the portal opens. Not that I know the words. I could skip for the sheer unknowability. But some people do know how to open the door, sorry, the portal. We have this cult of priests, the Occulti. No one knows who they are, completely hush-hush. You can imagine why.”
Kyle shook his head in the negative.
Sal was startled by this, but continued, “Oh well, if their identities were discovered, there’s a chance that they or their families might be harmed. You see, people want out, especially now. Your realm is like a fairytale to us, ironically enough, since this world was created to give society a chance to start over removed from the mire of circumstances in which it was wasting. Experiment kind of failed, I’d say, because here we are, people just as muddled as their ancestors. I suppose to start anew you have to find a different sort of man, or become a different sort of man, or else weed out all the bad ones. But who could do that? Who should? How can you pick out the good from the bad? There’s a question. Don’t think that I’d make the cut, or I could. I’m a poor judge of myself at times. Our founders must have foreseen that something might go wrong, because they instituted the Occulti from the very first moment of our creation.”
Sal took a deep satisfying breath as he stretched out his long legs and held his arms over his head, wondering, if he reached far enough, would he touch what he had that day when he travelled to another world. He thought back to those days, all the anxiety and anticipation the night before, telling his mother goodbye, being led to the portal. And then seeing it open, a barely perceivable ripple in the air, and knowing that he was going through. How wondrous. How tiny and miraculous. Whenever he felt old or hopeless, he’d remember that moment and that happiness bubbled up and lifted him. He might not be able to express to Kyle the joy, that wonderful swirl in his stomach, but he’d never stop trying to infuse in others the passion that he felt for the world: it’s why he fell in love with teaching in the first place.
“Once I got approval -- a harrowing task in and of itself. Thank the gods that was before my brother and I completely blemished our family’s legacy. But I got approval and a signal was given by the king and one of the Occulti went to the portal under guard and opened it. Then I was led there. Nothing notable in the whole area, nary a path -- as insurance, you’re taken on a cursive course, can’t find the place again and besides you shouldn’t go looking -- but it was spectacular, Kyle. You’d love it. You stare at this invisible pinprick of the universe and feel these two worlds meld. So much time and history seem to press on you and for a moment you feel like you’re as brilliant as a star. You’ll see it, if you want. You’ll feel that one day too.” The boy look enraptured and Sal felt that same thrill he did when he stood in front of a classroom, implanting seeds in young minds that were ready to snatch up whatever they could; so eager and curious about things they didn’t yet know. “I stepped through and my lungs filled like they never had before. My whole body was shaking. I had never felt so human before and so alive and so big, like my essence was bursting through the boundary of my body. It was something else, I’ll tell you. Better than…” Sal didn’t finish his thought as he glanced sheepishly at Kyle.
“You can say it. I’m eighteen. Sex. Better than sex. At least I have that to look forward to, if the king can get me home. The portal, not sex. But maybe that too. One’s more likely than the other” Kyle paused and looked thoughtfully at Sal, whose face had grown rather red (he still didn’t know how to handle it when kids talked about sex in front of him, especially when he could still remember his face in a pint-sized form). “Can I ask you a question?”
“Depends,” Sal replied tentatively.
“About my dad,” Kyle clarified.
“Depends,” Sal answered once more though looking relieved.
“Is he alive?”
Sal was quiet, rubbing his jaw as he looked up at the ceiling. Probably would have had an easier time answering something about foreplay or whatever it was kids these days had questions about. The man’s face scrunched, and then he began, “I have no idea. I lost touch with him some years ago. Things got dangerous. I was under scrutiny and too much risk. There are whispers through different channels that he’s very much alive and planning something. Some say that he went north for a while to muster strength. But that would be too bold a move for Christopher, and he would never betray his people by associating with the Northern Realm. If anyone has the resources to stay alive and in hiding like this, it would be your father. I think he is. I like to believe that he is. I imagine that your presence here might draw him out, should he hear.”
“Do you think that maybe I was brought here to do that?”
Sal sighed in resignation, “I don’t know. It does seem odd that you appeared here for no apparent reason. Things like that don’t happen. And, if I’ve learned anything in my years, it’s that the Occulti aren’t impenetrable. If Christopher knew people, that means others might as well. I wouldn’t worry about that now.” Sal patted him on the shoulder. “But when you go to the palace, be careful. Jacob, our king, is a good man, but there are plenty of wasps flying around. News of your arrival might already have reached their ears. I know that traveling there with Noirah should certainly cause some ripples.” He took another breath, “Just be careful.”
Suddenly Noirah burst into the room, once again sending the poorly placed coat rack in a tizzy. At some point in the night or morning, she had regained her perennial composure. She donned a fresh white button down, pressed black skirt and clean dark tights. Except for the barely visible scratch above her eye, Kyle never would have guessed that she had run into trouble yesterday, that they had run into trouble. Had to give it to the Tillards, they were resilient. Kyle ran his hand through his hair: he still felt a mess. His whole life was getting messier, yet clearer, with every passing day.
“I swear, you have to move. I had to walk ten blocks just to find a decent grocer’s market. No wonder you never eat,” Noirah exclaimed. She threw her bag onto Sal’s lap and gave Kyle a look. “Hey Sleeping Beauty, scoot over.” Kyle made room so that she was seated between him and Sal. She snatched the bag from Sal, reached in and pulled out two biscuits, tossing one to Kyle. “You can have the rest,” she informed Sal. Neither she nor he acknowledged why she had purchased such a surplus of food. The man was no less proud than the girl. “Eat up, we got to get going. If we’re early enough, we can probably wrangle some left over coffee from the palatial breakfast.” The odd flourish of her words caused Sal to chuckle.
“You can judge those people as much as you like, but they’ve got good coffee. Only people in the world that get their hands on those good, imported beans.” Then Sal turned to Kyle, speaking as though Noirah couldn’t hear him, “And the people aren’t all that bad, no matter what this one says.”
Noirah sank deeply in the couch and pulled her knees up to her chest, feeling the sting of betrayal. She picked off a piece of the biscuit, and muttered, “Way to keep loyal to the family, Uncle Sal.”
“I’m an adult, Noirah. I can have my own opinions and not everyone turned their backs on us. We still have some support. You can’t forget that.” His words failed to rouse her from her snit. Noirah refused to look at her uncle, tearing apart her food with a fervor that resulted with a great pile of crumbs on her lap and not much food in her mouth. “Oh, stop the moping, it doesn’t suit you,” Sal reprimanded.
“Who are you kidding? It suits me just fine. This face was made to mope,” she shot back, sticking out her tongue. The gesture eased the tension. She wasn’t angry at him. She knew that he would never do anything to harm her. But feelings of betrayal never go away. They engrain themselves deep within you, grafting onto your bones. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that you can trust. Sometimes it’s better to expect the worst, that way nothing hurts very much.
“I don’t know if I can go back,” Noirah demurred. Her eyes stared at the mess her hands created.
Sal took her head and placed it on his shoulder; she cuddled beneath his arm and he settled his chin on top of her head. “You, my dear Noirah, have the capability both to go there and to cause havoc, make waves, start rumors, be the target of gossip, be conduit of gossip, have fun and mend fences.” When she made no comment nor movement, he added, kindly yet sternly, “It’s only as bad as you make it.”
Noirah’s face twitched in anger, as she tried her best to ignore the sentiment. “It’s only as bad as it is.”
Sal put his hand to her chin and turned her head to face him. Instead of waiting for a stream of inspirational and comforting words to sprout from his lips, Noirah swatted his hand away and had some words of her own:
“No, stop it with this cheery, hurrah business. I am sulking. I am choosing to sulk because I want to sulk because pretty soon I won’t be able to sulk. So shut up, put your arm back round my shoulder and be a silent, bolstering force while I sulk.”
Sal did as she said and let her have her moment. In the meanwhile, Kyle quietly ducked into the bathroom to let them be alone. He felt better by himself in the tiny room, safe away from emotions. He pulled his sleeve over his hand and gave the mirror a rub. The image that faced him made him cringe. He was going to go to the palace looking like that? No remedy existed for the dark circles, but he splashed some water on his face to try and clear away the cobwebs. Then he attempted to fix his uncooperative hair. Maybe the palace had some hair gel? Once he gave up, he sat down on the toilet lid and did some sulking of his own, as well as defending himself against that small army of cockroaches burrowed in the corner.
He wondered what time it was at home. What was his mother doing right then and there? Did she know where he had gone? Did she know that her husband could still be here? Or did she simply imagine that another man in her life was stolen away. Kyle could picture crowds of people coming to their tiny home to check in on her ‘well, we didn’t know you had a son – Kip? – but we’re very sorry that he’s gone missing. Call us if you need anything?’ But she wouldn’t. He could picture her all alone, neurotically rearranging trinkets on the shelves, keeping her hands busy, her mind occupied. The book that she had been reading would go untouched because when his mother was nervous, her eyes could only see words, but her mind could only process her own anxious thoughts. She probably noticed that Kyle had stolen some of her secret candy stash; well, he finished her secret candy stash, but he did mean to replace it. One day. She’d smile at his guilty face.
If his father was alive, Kyle couldn’t picture anything that he might be doing. He could only see a frozen young man who fell in love with a girl in the sunlight.
“She’s all done now with the wallowing: you can come out,” Sal shouted from the other side of the door.
“Unless you’re doing something, then I mean, you should stay in there. Right?” Noirah corrected.
“Yeah, of course. I assumed that he’d know that. If he was doing something, then of course he should stay in there. He’s nearly a man, Noirah, he’s old enough to know that.”
“I’m just saying, I don’t really know how smart that one is.”
Kyle exited the bathroom and sucked in a breath, finding the two standing side by side right in front of the bathroom door, both grinning like idiots.
“I wasn’t doing anything in there,” Kyle informed them both.
“Yeah, except fixing your hair?” Noirah teased, swooping in to give his mop a ruffle. “Suppose we best be off,” Noirah chimed, making doe eyes at Sal, as though she could really behave in the way that he had asked her to. She could try to be nice, but she wasn’t going to wait for the snakes to strike first.
Sal hugged her, reading the look for what it was. Before he released her completely, he drew her in front of him with a hand on each shoulder. Leaning down so that they were eye to eye, he calmly advised, “There’s still hope of getting it all back, if you try.” He pulled her tightly into his arms once more, “Be good, kid. It was the best seeing you.”
Noirah squirmed out of his arms, “Don’t be so maudlin.”
“It suits me,” he replied.
Noirah rolled her eyes and skipped over to where she had left her bag. “Kyle, move, now,” she ordered in a huff.
Kyle shrugged up at Sal at a loss for words. “Thanks?” he tried.
“You too. You brought a little bit of my childhood with you. You’re a lot like Penny and I think you have great potential to outdo your father.” He extended his hand and Kyle shook it. The way Sal looked at him, his words, the way he treated Kyle, made him feel like a man, an equal. He smiled.
And on they went to the king.