“Did I tell you,” Salem began with a grunt as he settled himself on a log while reaching for a his bottle of water, eyes steady on Xander’s back, “My niece will be arriving in a week’s time.”
Xander was silently hacking through pieces of wood with an ax, he swung hard as the blade flawlessly sliced through a thick chunk placed on top of a stump. “Really?” Xander breathed, while straightening.
Salem’s gaze was steady on his form. The back of his shirt was sleek with sweat and clinging desperately, youthful muscles furrowed on his back with each movement he made. “Indeed,” he drank more as Xander dropped the ax, chest heaving. He wiped at his upper lip with the hem of his shirt and sunk on the tree stump, exhausted. They had been chopping wood for six hours straight and piling them into wheelbarrows before wheeling them back uphill, to the shed.
Times like there, Salem was silently grateful for Xander’s presence. Sure, he was able to do the work just as fine without the boy but at a slower pace and less efficiently. Xander breezed through the job, stopping only to sip water or catch his breath before jumping back at it.
The summer heat had began to settle, autumn slowly creeping from afar. Though he would miss the endless blue skies and blistering heat, Salem was grateful for the cool relief. This season had been particularly long and uncertainty grew at the thought of a drought occurring. Thankfully, autumn was only just beginning, gentle precipitation easing its way onto dry land.
“Is she from your country?” Xander glanced up at him from his water bottle, rolling between blistered palms. “...Moro-”
“Morocco.” Salem corrected with a nod and smile, “That’s right.”
Xander nodded sipping his water, eyes wandering over the numerous logs laid before them, yet to be gathered and piled onto the waiting wheelbarrows.
Salem’s gaze was watchful, smiling. “Last time I saw her was ten years ago, small girl. ’Bout this big-” he lowered his palm to the ground, hovering it three feet, “Wee little girl. Six years old I reckon.” He hand scratched at his beard thoughtfully, “Should be sixteen by now.” He waited for a response of any kind from the boy but Xander’s eyes listlessly roamed from tree to tree, twisting the bottle in hand off handed.
“That’s nice.” Xander finally managed to say reaching for his ax, “What’s her name?”
“Amina.” Salem spoke confidently, they had spoken on numerous occasions via phone and email. Amina, his favorite niece, bubbly and level headed. The last born in a family of six siblings, and the smartest it seemed. All the older siblings had either been married off or dropped out of college to take care of the house considering their parents had aged well beyond functioning stage. Amina was the youngest, the next sibling eight years older than her.
Despite living in a modernized era, some tradition roots still ran deep in their culture; including arranged marriage at a young age. Salem had a hunch that it could happen but never really figured it would happen. Amina, after all, carried the weight of the family on her shoulders. She had easily topped all science classes and was head of the student committee in her high school, securing a scholarship into one of the national universities in her country, medicine was the path she chose; pediatrician.
All her efforts, however, seemed to head down an inevitable road. Marriage.
Eight months ago, Salem had been woken one night by his blaring phone. It was Amina.
She was in hysterics, words muffled by distance and sobs that wracked her voice. It took him twenty minutes to finally calm her down, and when she was able to speak again, his heart dropped. They had found her a suitor, forty years above her age.
It took him over twenty calls through her relatives, family members and finally the local municipal; pleading her case of being too young.
None were willing to listen.
Resorting to the last possible means of escape, he arranged papers for visa application, passport attainment and finally a study permit. The process was long and tedious, days wracked with anxiety and restlessness, nights of silent prayers of murmurs of encouragement between phones pressed on ears until the documents finally rolled in. Elation was an understatement.
The hard part had finally been overcome. All that was left to do was escape. Night time was the most preferable, one suitcase filled with mild essentials for she could buy more once she arrived, taxi to the airport. Salem permitted himself a sigh of relief only once she got on the place. Only then would he count his basket of eggs.
Yet, he was unable to hide the secret from Xander- realizing that female company would be great in the house. She could help in ways Salem could not. For instance, he was aware of Xander’s poor literacy skills, he could read but with struggle and could not write at all. Amina would educate him as she attended school and once he caught up, maybe he too could enroll in the system. Though he feared the alpha would disagree.
He watched Xander cut through more chunks of wood, pausing briefly to adjust his red cap, noting how long his curls had grown- way past regular length and held away from his face with a flimsy rubber band. He would bring up the topic of a haircut during dinner.
Salem idly wondered if Amina knew how to cut hair.
By 3 PM, they had managed to wheel the last stack of wood back to the shed. Xander stepped back to survey the mass of wood piled into a large triangle, wide at the base and narrowing once it got to the top. Beside him, Salem groaned stretching out his lower back.
“I must be growing old,” Salem sighed rolling his thick shoulders and Xander smiled faintly, reaching a hand to raise his baseball cap, now wet with sweat, and run a finger through his curls before adjusting it. “Going in for lemonade, want some?”
“Yes sir.” Xander’s gaze wandered back to the forest, subtle eagerness twitching his body in her direction. He still had time considering they finished early.
He waited by the stairs for Salem, turning away once he heard the familiar steps, Salem balanced a tray with a large jug of lemonade, so cold it condensed around the glass, and two cups. He drank hurriedly, sighing in relief as his throat cooled, not realizing just how badly he needed to drink.
Salem made a face, “Dinner will be at 9, roast beef and mash potatoes. What’d ya think?”
Xander shrugged nonchalantly, “Okay.” He wasn’t one to pick about foods, he was content as long as a meal was guaranteed. “Thank you.” He added while bounding down the steps and heading for his shed, Salem’s gaze was steady on his back, he could feel it. Diverting away from the shed would only raise unnecessary suspicions.
He had grown accustomed to the routine. Work, pretend to leave for his shed, wait around until the man disappeared inside, sneak out. At first, the guilt of sneaking around behind Salem’s back weighed down on him heavily but weeks passed and the more he saw Elliot, the less the guilt appeared; replaced with vague happiness and satisfaction.
His only fear was Salem catching him.
If Salem caught him, Xander was positive he would be back on the streets.
Was he willing to risk it?
Glancing over his shoulder at the empty spot where Salem once stood, Xander slipped behind his cabin and jogged towards the woods.
He didn’t have to go far. In fact, Xander was barely halfway through his journey when he spotted her.
Elliot was sitting in the middle of a river, water rushing around her, reaching just above her waist. She wore normal clothes, a plastic fishing rod held steadily between both hands and green swimming goggles worn protectively over her eyes. Her expression was set, firm and steady, gaze hardly wavering from the spot in front of her.
Xander stopped ways away and watched her for a full minute, trying to decipher just what exactly she was doing. He started to approach warily, eyes scanning the environment in case a guardian was around, and nostrils flaring slightly, catching no scent except hers. Assured she was alone, he halted by the streams bank and called out to her quietly. “Elliot.”
Elliot remained still, a statue in the river which glistened under the sun.
“Elliot,” he tried again and when she didn’t respond, he stooped down and collected a pebble, smooth and shiny in his palm. He chucked it at her, dropping with a heavy ‘plop’ into the water by her side.
Elliot’s attention snapped in his direction, eyes squinting through the goggles, mouth parted in a scowl. The stunned expression slowly morphed to a wide smile as recognition set in, reaching a hand up, she lifted her goggles onto the crown of her head and waved wildly. “Xan!”
The start of a small smile tugged at his lips, Xander gestured at her ear.
“Oh,” reaching up, she fidgeted with the device for a moment before speaking less louder, “Hi!”
Xander glanced down at the stream warily then back at her.
“Fishing.” She stated proudly as though reading his mind, then groaned gesturing at the river before her. “But there’s no fishes here.”
His gaze moved to the water, “Is it not cold?”
“No.” Elliot murmured, attention drifting back to the fishing line. She reeled it back and he realized the hook was plastic and blunt with a thin piece of salmon taped to the end.
Xander doubted the fish had a particular diet for their own kind.
Nonetheless, he admired her effort and stooped down to untie his laces then slide off his socks before rolling his jeans up to his knees. The water was freezing, a sharp contrast to the hot air and he stood for a moment, adjusting to the sudden decline in temperature.
Elliot watched him with a wide smile as his feet sloshed through the shallow water, stopping short of his knees, he halted by her side and glanced up the river. Lifting the baseball cap to smooth his hair back habitually, then dropped his gaze to the girl whose attention had drifted back to the river.
“How long have you been here?”
Her small shoulders lifted casually, “Dunno, ma sent me out cause I was making too much noise.” If sorrow was in her tone, he could not hear it, she seemed indifferent to the idea of being sent out each time as though her presence tired her mother to no end.
Xander crouched down, dipping his hand into the flowing stream. “It’s too shallow.” He began and she peered at him just as he straightened, walking down the stream.
Not a moment later, he heard the soft splashing of feet as she followed him close by, fish rod balanced on her shoulder. “Where are we going?”
“Further down,” was his reply. The river’s floor was slippery and more than once he had to reach out and steady her by the collar to prevent another slip up. The river gently meandered from the clearing and cut through the forest where bamboo trees began their ascension on either sides, moss carpeting the floor. The air was cooler beneath the trees shade, birds bickering in the distance complimenting the sound of the water swaying past.
The further they walked, the higher the water’s level rose up until it reach past his knees. Xander glanced back at his mate who was struggling as the water reached just above her stomach. He would have offered to carry her but the determined expression had him choosing otherwise.
“What will you do with them?” He broke the comfortable silence and she blinked, never having really thought that far.
He stopped briefly to pick at a pebble in the water, the color of deep polished lilac. Xander turned it in his palm watching as its colors shifted, much like a kaleidoscope, before dropping it in Elliot’s outstretched palm. “Will your mum allow it?”
Elliot surveyed the stone in anthropological wonder, mimicking his actions of lifting it to the sun then satisfied, placed it in the pocket of her jeans. “No, ma’s a vegeterararian.”
Xander studied her. “A what?”
“Vegetarararian.” She answered confidently.
“Vegetarian?” He corrected mildly and she nodded impatiently, the difference clearly not evident.
Finally, they came to a stop where the water now reached his lower abdomen, Xander gestured for her to step on elevated rocks and she did, curious eyes on him. He surveyed the water for a moment, where algae was present fish were bound to appear.
And they did, dark silhouettes darting through the water and one even brushed his ankle.
Elliot leaned over the rock, a wide smile cutting as she noticed them as well. She straightened, ready to throw her fishing rod into the river when he shook his head pressing it back into her hands. “How else are we supposed to catch it?” She griped.
Ignoring her antics, Xander stared at the water, watching and waiting.
“Is this a magic trick?” Her voice interrupted.
Elliot crawled onto her belly on the rock, hands braced on the edge while she leaned in to peer at the water.
“If you stand real quiet will they jump into your hands?”
“Is it there yet?”
Her silence was brief.
“How about now?”
His head shook.
She puffed her cheeks full of air, impatient gaze moving to his still figure and back.
“What about now?”
A sigh, “Patience, Elliot.”
She hunched over with a groan, “Charles would have lost all his baby teeth by the time you-”
Xander’s hand shot into the water and not a moment later he pulled out, fish in hand. His mouth tugged at the corner’s at the sight of Elliot’s surprised expression, mouth parting into a small ‘o’ before eyes lifted to his. She shouted in elation, hands outstretched as he reached forward to place it.
“Be careful, it’s slippery.” He warned and she nodded vigorously, urging him. Xander hesitated, holding her wrist with one hand and gently placing the thrashing fish into her small open palm. Her fingers hardly closed around the animal before it started bucking wildly, tail slapping around violently and gills expanding for air.
Petrified, Elliot’s grip on the fish loosened as it slipped away dropping back into the river.
She smiled sheepishly at Xander, “Oops.”
He sighed out loud.
Fifteen minutes later he managed to catch six more fishes and having nowhere to place them, Xander tossed them onto the river bank where they flailed around uselessly before laying still, gills expanding and contracting while waiting for the inevitable.
Elliot had been watching and cheering on, even managing to hold a few only to throw them onto dry land almost immediately before wiping her slippery sleek palm on the back of his shirt.
“Isn’t that enough?” Xander watched as his mate threw the tenth fish onto land and turned to him with an expectant gaze.
“I haven’t yet caught one.”
How could he explain to her she lacked the necessary skills needed to catch fish?
Elliot was only a pup, her reflexes and speed only just beginning to grow.
He chewed his lip thoughtfully before stepping back, gesturing at her to follow his movements. “Spot the fish from afar, wait until it gets close-” his hand slowly dipped into the water, eyes on her, “grab and pull. Okay?” He spoke slowly, waiting for her to catch up though he had a feeling she was barely listening.
Elliot nodded in excitement and gazed deeply into the water.
Xander watched her profile, eyebrows furrowed at the center in vivid concentration, her breaths now shallow with a steady heartbeat. Copper green eyes darted momentarily from side to side and her mouth twitched just as her hand shot into the water.
She moved too quickly, the weight of her body tilting over the slipper rock.
Elliot fell headfirst into the river.
Panic set in hard and fast as Xander’s hand plunged through the water’s surface, fingers curling around something firm. He yanked hard and raised her out of the water by the ankle, upside down.
Elliot sputtered, still stunned by the brief submerge, and coughed violently only to break out into a wide smile.
In her hand was a fish.