31: The Fallen
I’d been living with the Naga gang for a few months now. Life was comfortable there. There was a large compound in the city, hidden in an old abandoned mansion. It was falling apart, but that was okay. There was food to be eaten every day, a warm bed for me to sleep in, and chores to do. I was only ten, so I was charged with most of the basic cleaning, while the older members were fixing up the manor, cooking, or other kinds of chores I wasn’t big enough to do. Dean was the closest to me in age than anyone else there, and I found myself spending most of my time with him. Though, sometimes he had responsibilities other than mine; I heard he was often in meetings with the leader, Kane Marsa.
When I’d first arrived, I was afraid I would be some kind of slave, treated horribly as payment for what my father had done. But I found that that wasn’t the case. These people, criminals though they may be, were overall kind to me. We all worked, ate, and played together. It was like a large family made up of people with frightening exteriors. The man with the scariest appearance, the leader, was the kindest of them all to me. I think he saw me as some kind of daughter. I didn’t know why, but it didn’t bother me. I felt guilty that I had replaced my father so quickly, as it seemed, but my own father had never shown as much concern for my well-being as Marsa had in the last few months. His mercy allowed me to stay here, and for my father’s debt to be forgiven. I was comfortable, surviving, and dare I say it... happy, for the first time since Larke had been stolen from us.
Every day, I thought of how my father must be doing. I wondered if he was doing well, if he’d returned the farm to its former glory. Was he cleaning it up now, as I sat here, waiting for me to come home? I wanted nothing more than to return to my cottage, even if it was just to visit. Every day, I tried to muster the courage to ask the leader for such a privilege, but every day, I just couldn’t do it. Despite his kindness to me, I couldn’t convince myself that if I requested it, he would take away all of his compassion as quickly as he had given it.
I voiced my concerns about my father to Dean. He was my closest friend right now. Of course, Larke had been my best friend, my twin sister. We would always bicker and fight, but in the end, she was always there for me. Or at least, she had been. Now that she was gone, it felt as if I were half-empty, lopsided, uneven, without her. I’d tried to fill her void with my new friendship with Dean. Now, I came to him when I had concerns and troubles. He had done me such a favor to bring me here, to feed me that one fateful day we met, and to help my father too. It felt wrong to complain about it, but I needed to see my father.
“Dean?” I asked one day, nervous.
“Do you think I could go home to visit my father?” I said, in a voice so light and quiet that I wasn’t sure he would hear me. I cleared my throat, anxious. “Just to visit – I know d have to come right back.”
He tilted his head, looking at me with a hint of sadness behind his clear blue eyes. “I’ll request the leader for you,” he offered. “We can go together.”
I couldn’t stop the wry grin that lit upon the corners of my lips, and I threw my arms around Dean. I felt so thankful for him that I could manage nothing else. I just had to see for myself what my father was doing, how he was, and what I was missing out on.
Marsa must have granted my request, for the very next day, I woke to Dean knocking on my door.
“It’s time to go,” he said cheerily, a small bag in his hand that must’ve been filled with some rations for our journey.
As we walked out of the manor, Dean told me we were allowed a day to travel, then had to return to the compound the following nightfall. A twinge of guilt sent my stomach to my toes, as I wondered how easy it would be to escape Dean and run away from the Naga with my father. We could start over, raise another farm, and things could go back to the way they used to be. I prayed to Tarah, the goddess of land, that She had provided for my father, that he was back on his feet enough that we could get away and find a new home, just for us. I didn’t share my hopes with Dean, but I felt that he could see the deceit on my face. I never was very good at lying.
We made the journey to my old cottage, just as we did months ago when we’d first met. The walk was silent; I busied myself daydreaming about where my father and I could go. The coast? I’d never seen the ocean, and I’d always wanted to know what the sea breeze smelled like. I daydreamed of salty air and sandy toes, my father and I laughing and playing in the water.
After a few hours of walking, we had almost reached our destination. I could see my old home from the road we traveled on. The cottage looked shabbier than I remembered, but perhaps that was only my faulty memory. The door hung slightly off the hinge, no longer functioning. Was it like that when I’d left? Those hinges were always suspect at best, perhaps father was in the midst of fixing them.
“Renn, let me go in first,” Dean suggested, taking the initiative and entered my childhood home before I could protest. He stopped in the middle of the one-roomed cottage, blocking the door with his body.
I approached slowly. Dean didn’t turn around, but as I got closer, I smelled something horrible. It was sweet, the stench of the dead. Sickly sweet; a smell that prickled my nose, making me want to sneeze.
I didn’t want to see what Dean was hiding. Subconsciously, I knew it was my father. Of course, it would be him. Every hope I had come crashing down around me, smothering me in disappointment and sadness. I stood there, behind Dean, unmoving, my eyes blank as I tried to process what was happening to me, to him.
“He’s... dead,” Dean spoke somberly. He turned to look at me, pity and sympathy in his sad eyes. “Do you know any magic?”
His words finally penetrated the daze I was in, echoing faintly in my ears as if through a door. “Why?” I managed to ask, my tongue suddenly heavy, making the words challenging to articulate. My eyes stayed rooted to the floor, staring at my father’s limp hand. I couldn’t force my eyes to venture anywhere else but those stiff, filthy fingers, cracked and chewed nails, the cuticles bloody and grimy.
I was numb to what was happening. My father was dead, and it didn’t feel real, couldn’t be real. Why was Dean asking me about magic, now? My sister was the magically powerful one. I always was cast in her shadow in that respect.
“For last rites,” Dean said matter-of-factly. “I know the Thiolish Sollitans favor magical cremation. Are you Sollitan? Or Serran?” he asked, cocking his head to the side.
“No... we’re not religious... but I guess you could say we favor Serran religion more than anything. Balance favors those who benefit from nature, like farmers,” I answered robotic-ally, unable to shake my gaze from the floor of the cottage.
“So... we can bury him, if you like,” Dean proposed, scratching the back of his head, ruffling his black hair.
I nodded. The emotions I wouldn’t let myself feel choked in my throat. My eyes burned, but no tears came. I couldn’t think about burying my father – I had just learned he was dead. I should’ve known better than to anticipate him to be better, when he hadn’t improved a day in his life. I left the doorway of our cottage, unable to bear it any longer. I leaned against the outer wall, staring into the sky. I rested my head against the wood beams, closed my eyes, and bid goodbye to the dreams of ocean sunsets. There were still no tears, and I wished I could cry. Maybe it would help, to feel something, to express something. But I felt blank, numb, empty.
Dean buried him for me, in a little knoll overlooking our sad farm. According to the Serrans, it is holier to bury someone as close to the sky as possible, so that they may join the goddess Tarah in her afterlife on the highest mountain peaks.
“Skyward may his soul be,” we whispered, the noonday sun washing over his grave, the freshly turned dirt disrupting the smooth grass of the knoll that was my father’s final resting place.
I had nothing. My dreams of escaping to a better life were crushed, trampled, drowned by my father’s inability to cope with reality. Dean and I began our journey to return to the Naga compound, silent all the way.
I embraced my new future – Renn Fields, the Naga gang member.