The War of Archos

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A World In Us

After we had taken down the banner, having had to climb up the light posts it was attached to, we made our way through the quiet town. The town was a bohemian's wet dream, with stores selling everything from occult books and incense to tie dye and statues of the goddess. But between the strange establishments were plenty of regular ones: a large bank, a grocery store, a bar here and there, even a few take-out places. The last one surprised me; I half expected to see stables filled with horses from the way my mother had described it.

Before I knew it, we were back on the outskirts of town. A mere ten minutes had passed since we entered this town and we were surrounded by trees and houses again. I sighed, resigning myself to my new existence. We pulled into the driveway of an old, dilapidated, turn-of-the-century house with a small front yard. A front porch swing, which at the zenith of its glory had swung white and graceful, hung at an angle, its paint chipping away at the slightest breeze.

"Awesome," I muttered under my breath. Hope and I got out of the car, looking around the small yard as I shut my door. The forest crept in on all sides of the house, as though trying to take the house for itself.

"Grab a box, Mal. We'll get the rest later." I grabbed a box labeled 'kitchen' from the back of the station wagon and followed my mom down to the front door. Holding the screen door open with her foot, she dug a key out of her pocket and unlocked the front door. She looked at me and smiled, before turning back to the house. She took a breath to steady herself and crossed the threshold before she lost her nerve.

The inside of the house was nearly as bad at the outside. It was obvious no one had lived here in several years, a stench of paint and decay filling the house. A thick layer of dust coated every surface, and even floated, stagnant, in the air. Hope coughed, waving her hand in front of her face in an attempt to rid herself of the dust. I could hear a family of mice scurrying in the walls above us, although I knew it was too low for Hope to hear. I'd get them out myself; no need for her to even know they were there.

I turned around to look at her, and my heart ached. Her face was filled with fear, concern and agony. This had been her childhood home, no doubt home to many great memories, and here it was, unused and unwanted. I could tell seeing the house brought on a wave of guilt, long-since buried. Determined to cheer her up, I put on my brightest smile.

"At least it's better than our apartment on 47th, right?" I joked. Our apartment on 47th Street in New York City was a basement apartment, below a brothel and drug den. It barely fit a bed and what few possessions we had. Even with the dust, this house already beat that apartment ten-to-one. It was a sad attempt at humor, but at least it made Hope smile.

"Come on. Let's get started. Many hands or some such bull." Hope laughed, her smile returning more with every word I said. I could tell she wanted me to like this place as much as she did, and for her sake, I would try. We took our boxes into the kitchen and gingerly set them on the floor, trying in vain to not stir up any dust. I followed Hope to the front door, checking my phone as we walked. We had gotten new phones when we left Salt Lake City, and I still hadn't gotten used to it. As I walked onto the front porch, I nearly collided with Hope, who stood, rooted to the spot.

"Whoa! What's going... on?" I stuttered, having followed her gaze to our car. Such a diverse group of people stood next to the car, it took everything in me not to laugh. A blonde guy in a Letterman jacket, a guy in a grey trench coat, a black girl in tie dye and a pale girl in all black. It was like the interracial Breakfast Club was standing on our front lawn. The leader of this posse was a petite woman with short dark hair, her hands akimbo on her cocked hips. The part that struck me the most were her eyes. They were a piercing shade of green I had only seen one other place.

"Hope," she said, her voice high but firm.

"Claudia." The two women looked at each other, both daring the other to move first. Then the woman named Claudia smiled, her bright red lips cracking to show bright white teeth. She ran forward and hugged my mom, throwing her arms around Hope's neck. Hope wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and they embraced, silent, for quite some time. Finally, they released each other, standing at arms length, taking each other in.

"You took down my sign."

"I didn't want everyone to know I was in town."

"Mom?" Hope and Claudia looked at me, as though noticing me for the first time. Claudia looked quickly back at Hope, a questioning look on her face.

"Mal come here. I'd like you to meet Claudia, my baby sister. And your aunt."

"I have an aunt?!" "I have a nephew?!"

We looked back and forth from each other to Hope, both equally confused and unsure of what to do next. Hope lay a comforting hand on both our shoulders.

"Claudia was only 13 when I eloped with your father, and I had you after we left. I've only shared the occasional coded message with Claudia over the years, and I never mentioned you."

"You mother has told me everything," said Claudia, reassuringly. My body tensed, my fight or flight reflex kicking into overdrive.

"She did?"

"Oh sure! A father who was undercover with the FBI? No wonder you had to stay hidden all the time!" said Claudia, a cheerful smile on her face, and I relaxed.

"Sure. That's it. The FBI" I said, unsure of where to go in the conversation. Desperate, I hugged Claudia, and she gasped in surprise. "I'm so glad to have you as an aunt."

"Aw." Claudia wrapped her arms around me and rubbed my back. I looked at Hope and she nodded covertly and winked at me, barely able to stifle her giggles. Aunt Claudia {Aunt Claudia? Hmm... That will take some getting used to} released me and gestured at her friends.

"Well, let me introduce you to my friends. This is Wally, Grace, Lily, and Crawford," she said, pointing to each person in turn.

"It's Slash!" the one named Crawford said, indignant.

"Fine. Slash. Anyway, we're here to help you clean the house!" said Claudia, turning back to us. "After Mom died, I never really used it for anything, so it sort of... well, you saw it."

"We did. Thanks for the help. I'll order some pizzas" said Hope, pulling her phone from her back pocket.

"Come on guys! Attack!" yelled Claudia, brandishing a broom like a sword, and charged into the house.

The sun had just begun to set when we finally finished. We had gotten more done than I had anticipated; these friends of Aunt Claudia's were efficient. Dirty, sweaty, and tired, we lounged around the kitchen, eating pizza out of the box on the island. Claudia and Hope had gone for a walk, to reconnect, leaving us with pizza and a deck of cards. None of us knew how to play cards all that well, so that endeavor was rather short lived, followed quickly by a game of "Never Have I Ever", which I was currently losing.

"Never have I ever... been to New York City" Lily said, her long dark hair pulled back in a tail that fell down her back. A loose, tie dyed blouse clung gracefully to her slender body. Her blue nails sparkled lively against her dark skin as she held seven fingers up.

"Seriously? Did you guys research me before coming here just to gang up on me?" I asked, lowing my last lonely finger.

"Maybe" said Grace, her voice ominous. For everything Lily had seemed to be, Grace was her opposite. She was short, pale, and didn't wear a single color. Seriously, not one. Her short hair was so crazy and obstreperous, it was becoming comical. She held up her pale hands, revealing eight fingers, a black nail tipping each one.

"We just like knowing our next meal" said Crawford/Slash, his voice sinister. He smiled unnervingly, and leaned back against the wall. He sat on the counter, his heavy combat boots dangling above the floor. A red flannel shirt and white tank top were hidden under a grey trench coat. He held up a single hand in a finger-less glove, raising four fingers

"Okay, new game" I said, trying to get the subject off myself. I was never comfortable divulging too much about my past, for fear of revealing something that would put Hope and I into danger.

"How do you all know Claudia? Do you all work with her?"

"Uh, in a way" said Wally. He seemed to be the odd one out in this group. Dressed in a brand logo t-shirt under his Letterman jacket, he held up five fingers while he smoothed his hair with his other hand.

"'In a way'? Nice try Wallace" said Slash, dropping his hand to his side.

"Whatever, Crawford" replied Wally, crossing his arms as he leaned back against the opposite wall.

"Guys. Can we tone down the testosterone? Please?" said Lily, her voice firm. To my amazement, both men immediately calmed down, mumbling apologies under their breath. She turned to me. "Ms. Reynolds is our teacher."


"Your aunt."

"Oh. Then why are you helping her?"

"We like her."

"Not much of a way to spend a Saturday, is it?" laughed Grace. Her bright laugh a strange juxtaposition to her dark demeanor. I made a mental note to comment on it to her later.

"Is she offering you extra credit? What college is it?" I asked, still trying to grasp the idea I had an aunt. Everyone laughed, looking at each other as though they shared an inside joke at my expense.

"Not college, Mal. High school. We're all juniors" said Wally helpfully.

"Seriously? I thought you guys had to be way older" I said, doubting their smiles.

"Are you saying we look old?" asked Grace, incredulous. She shot me a look that could kill a wild boar.

"No, not at all. I only meant I'm used to being the young one" I backpedaled, and laughter filled the room. As the laughter died down, I looked more quizzically at Wally. He noticed my stare and nodded in my direction.

"You're trying to figure out how I fit in here, aren't you?"

"Well," I started, "I can see how everyone else more or less fit into a similar high school tier, but you and your Letterman jacket just don't fit."

"Two reasons. You're right about me, by the way. I'm one of the popular crowd, one of the many mindless sheep running to every sale at Hollister."

"I didn't mean-"

"It's okay man. But I'm also know what it's like being the new kid. I transferred here in the middle of Sophomore year, so I figured I'd lend you the help I never received."

"Thanks. I appreciate it. But you said two reasons." Before I had finished speaking, Grace turned and grabbed him, pulling Wally into a deep kiss that would make Prince blush. When they finally broke apart, she smiled at me.

"He's been mine since last summer. Hands off." I raised my hands in mock surrender as chuckles flowed through the room.

"And you are wrong about one thing, Mal" said Lily. A slight shiver went down my spine from the way she said my name. "You assume that since Wally is at the top of the high school totem pole, the rest of us are at the bottom."

"You're not?" A soft shake of her beautiful head. "At any of my previous schools, you three would be the lowest of the low."

"Thanks a lot" said Grace sarcastically. "But because of Wallace, the other mindless sheep accept us as one of their own. We've all been at the bottom-"

"And the top" added Slash.

"Of the high school food chain. Now we sort of act like a human buffer zone, helping anyone who needs it and taking down bullies when we see them."

"Wow. Sounds like a better school than I've ever gone to," I said, awed.

"Nah, it's just as bad" said Wally and he grinned.

"We all fit into the cookie cutter stereotypes" said Lily. "The popular jock, the goth, the hippie and the criminal. People are comfortable coming to us."

"You know" said Slash, thoughtfully, "we could benefit from a brain. What do you say, Geek? You in?" He hopped down from the counter and held out a gloved fist to me. I looked around the room at the kind faces, lingering just a little longer on Lily. I returned my gaze to Slash, who cocked his eyebrow at me. I hit his waiting fist with mine.

"Yeah, I'm in."

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