Chapter 1: The Moon
In the end the sky is an illusion, and I find myself deeply in love with the sea. My hands try to grasp at the blue waves, but they only get water and salt because I’m not one of the fishes, and I wouldn’t dare try to swim. So I just stand alone on shore, not quite content to be human, and when I look at this sea that I love all I can understand is the reflection of a man-made sky.
“My Sai told me the moon has a face.” His small high voice interrupted my empty musings on the sky.
“Oh yeah? A lot of people see a face. It’s in the dark spots,” I laughed and messed his loose red curls. I left my brown hand on his head, enjoying the colors and thinking about the sweat and heat and life pouring out of his flustered little brain. He squinted his eyes to look up at me, and I could feel the skin tightening on his scalp. The sun had turned his enormous hazel eyes into little greenish almonds that stared at my face skeptically. He wiggled his freckled covered nose a few times and then drew a pudgy arm across it.
“I can’t find it, it’s too bright. It hurts when I look,” he sniffled and looked back down at the dusty, sun baked earth. His little feet were tightly wrapped in handmade sandals, and a few pebbles were stuck in between his stubby pink toes.
“Don’t worry, babe, neither can I.”
I bent down, picking out the rocks as I considered what else I could say to him. I still haven’t come up with anything. Then, his sticky hands were suddenly grabbing at my dark curls and violently throwing something to the side. “You had a buggy on you, Bee,” he laughed at my uncharacteristically surprised face. Perhaps I’d forgotten I was an adult, and for a moment I felt the magic of little hands grabbing at a head so normally out of their reach. It left me feeling warm in my chest, but with an odd tightness in the back of my neck. I had just turned thirty not long ago.
“Thank you,” I laughed, and we started walking again. He playfully ran ahead of me but then stopped and stared at something on the ground.
“Look Bee!” He held up a small, light blue ball of glass. And he was smiling widely at me as he burst, “It’s a piece of the sky!”
“Oh yeah, it does look like the one I have.”
“No look, look! Look, Bee!” he said and reached to the side, erasing a small black dot that had been on the horizon. I blinked at him, my entire mind feeling as if it were flipped upside down in a puddle of water. And then I was just watching as his tiny pale hand traced up the smooth, round surface of the world.
My old home was disappearing faster than my eyes could follow. I tried to look at a tree, capturing the image in my mind for only a moment before it scrambled out of focus behind metal and glass. And I remember my mother was wearing a mid-length, starched black skirt, and shimmering pale stockings that fell into shiny, silver buckled shoes. I can’t remember what her face looked like, but I remember the way she shifted her weight in the tight black shoes and the crease in her stockings when she pulled one of her feet free from them. Our priest was talking to her, and his lulling voice made me wish that I could rest my head on my mother’s thigh. But something kept me from touching anything aside from her stiff skirt. My other hand was holding onto a metal bar, and hers was wrapped in a black glove, gripping a white plastic ring.
We got out of the train at an obscure stop, and I remember the air feeling light and clean like nothing I’d ever experienced. My mother’s steps clicked loudly on the cement, but the priest’s modest back shoes were completely silent. We walked for some time longer than I’d expected, and then we waited at the end of a narrow, dirty paved road. I could hear something approaching, and I squinted, letting go of my mother to shield my sensitive hazel eyes against the summer sun. It was an automobile. I’d never seen one before, as they were far too inefficient and old fashioned to be used in our area of the world.
“Are you ready, Avery?” the priest said, his light brown hand suddenly taking hold of my own. I noticed, not for the first time, that our hands were nearly the same color. He seemed quite enthusiastic about taking me wherever we were going, but my mother’s pale face seemed even more despondent than normal.
I remember feeling horribly sick once we began moving in the automobile, and we were let out at what I took to be some kind of camp. There were enormous grassy fields, glittering turquoise swimming pools, an old green forest sprawling out over the hills for miles and miles, and white buildings with cute little names and arrows painted on their doors.
A tall woman in brown with tight blonde hair approached and spoke congenially to our priest before she led all three of us into a large white house called, “The Blue Bird’s Sanctuary.” Then all three left me there in a tiny, perfectly square room with a bed, a desk, a few books, and various masculine toys. I ate the stew someone brought me for dinner alone at the desk and patiently awaited my mother’s return. Even well beyond dusk I still found myself alone and mindlessly flipping through a tedious assortment of religious books. It wasn’t until after the sun had completely set that I started to wonder how I had gotten into this situation. Forgotten perhaps? Trouble with the trains?
And then suddenly it was completely dark. My heart leapt into my throat, but I calmed myself and tried to turn on the light. Unsuccessful, I went to the door and peeked into the brightly lit hallway, eyeing an old pink faced man sleeping in a chair. After a few long, apprehensive moments, I called out to him, and he looked at me with sick, apathetic red eyes. I told him the light was broken, but he only stared at me, blinking slowly. When I didn’t disappear he got up, shaking his head with a smile before shutting me into darkness.
I was extremely terrified for a moment, wondering exactly what kind of place my mother and the priest had abandoned me in. She’d seemed a bit guilty as she turned to leave, but it wasn’t so different from her normal gloom. And it wasn’t entirely unnatural to see tears in her eyes when she was looking at me. My father hadn’t come, but he did not have time for an effeminate son who did not resemble him. He was blonde, with striking blue eyes and glowing, disgustingly pink skin. My hair is dark like my mother’s, my skin a nutty brown like the priest’s, and my eyes a lighter hazel that makes my skin look even darker by contrast. My colors are actually very pretty, but they frightened my mother and angered my father, so as a child I could only assume they were something repulsive. And race was not something we discussed in my part of the world, almost as little as we discussed adultery.
I was dwelling on the obnoxious curliness of my hair as my eyes slowly started adjusting to the new darkness. A terrifying understanding was creeping into my mind, and I replayed the moment when my mother's friend the priest told me that some boys in the neighborhood had accused me of trying to kiss them. It wasn't true, of course, as I was far too shy and reserved to ever try something so bold. However, my obvious effeminacy made my case impossible to defend, and I realized in that darkness that I had been cast out of my ailing home and into the arms of the Lord.
As dread and hopelessness squeezed at the center of my chest, cool, blue moonlight arose and fell through the small barred window above. I’d always been infatuated with the moon, large and bright and completely alone in the great black sky. I decided I wanted to see my friend and climbed onto the desk, trying to stretch up and look out the window. I could just barely peek over the edge and peeled away a little bit of the wallpaper as I pulled myself up. As a fairly chubby child I could not hold myself long, so instead I thought I could use one of the thicker books to give myself some height. The Lord’s book was thickest, and I probably should have known better than to step on holy literature because as soon as I attempted to stretch upward, the book slid out from under my feet.
For a long, peaceful, yet terrifying moment, I thought I was flying. But then there was immense pain all over, emanating up through my arms from the hands and elbows that I had landed on. After the initial shock, I started to cry a little, making my hands into balls of frustration.
The man from the hallway burst into my room. “What’s going on in here!?” he yelled and pulled me up, examining my body. “There’s nothing wrong with you boy, stop crying like that!” He grumbled curses to himself and put me back down. I remember the way he smelled like garlic and condensed meats, and the harsh grip he had on my arms was only making me cry harder.
I wasn’t crying because it hurt; I was just terrified. Terrified of the lightness, the strange moment of not being able to touch or hold or feel anything but my own body. I glared at the old man, my hot, delusional mind wondering how he could not understand that I had almost drowned in the empty sky. And my moon was just sitting there, sulking, watching me sink into oblivion.
“Go back to bed now. It’s lights out at nine around here. ” He left with a growl of aggravation.
I crawled into the narrow bed, hid myself under the blankets, and muffled the sound of my crying in the stiff, bleach smelling linen of my pillow case. Even though I was already nine, I was the type of boy to cry as easily as any three year old girl. In other words, I often let myself do so whenever and wherever I pleased, consequences be damned. I fell asleep sometime soon after that, but woke again when I heard the sound of dresser drawers opening beside my head.
“What the hell,” a young voice whispered. “They’re way too small!”
I thought it was my imagination or a fitful dream, and in exhaustion I almost fell asleep again. But as I was drifting back into unconsciousness, I felt someone touching me, wiping away the tears that had dried my eyelashes together. The touch woke me further, but still only vaguely, and I turned my head toward the soothing hand.
“Beautiful,” a voice whispered, and I could feel their breath on my face. Then soft, cool lips pressed onto my hot cheeks. My eyes shot open as I realized it was real, and it was a kiss. A stranger’s kiss. I couldn’t see the boy’s face very well in the moonlight, but he had messy, slightly overgrown blonde hair, and very dark eyes that in my young mind seemed to gleam with the same light as the moon.
He looked at me, raising his sharp eyebrows in a questioning sort of way. I didn’t move when he bent forward again and hesitantly kissed me, very gently, on my mouth. My face flushed violently, and I closed my eyes as I tried to push down my beating heart, push down my light gasp as he broke away.
“You’re very… cute, for a boy. You’re a boy, right?” he half laughed. “Why were you crying so much?”
I could only stare at the moon in his eyes as he tried to wipe away the crust of dried tears from my burning cheeks. Then, just as I noticed an approaching commotion outside, several shouting adults suddenly came bursting into my room.
“What in the world are you…” An older woman’s voice shrieked, pulling him away sharply by the back of his shirt. I barely got to see him as they dragged his protesting body away into the light, his sun tanned skin, brown eyes, white blouse and.... pink skirt? Girl’s clothes?
“Are you alright?” the old man asked me. “She do anything weird to you, boy?” I paused for a moment, shaking my head. “Well, the excitement’s over. Go back to sleep, and from now on make sure you lock your door at night. You’re lucky it was just a girl. Heaven knows what some of these boys might do to a little one like you.” He crossed himself, drew the curtains on my window, and left.
Then I was suddenly completely alone again, staring into the darkness, and I ended up awake like this for several hours as I thought about what had happened. It was my first kiss, and it was so gentle and unexpected, so exciting, so exactly as I’d always imagined it would be.
“Avery Walker is an unabashed, uncontrollable sinner with no sense of morality or remorse,” the woman in the brown satin hat stated simply. The hat was pinned to her mousey hair with a little sparrow and a few pearls along the side. She had been my religion instructor those last few years I spent at the reform school, and she disliked me intensely.
“Objection, the boy was not of an age to understand the complexity of morals,” a younger man retorted immediately. “The mistakes of a young child.” He was my older sister’s lawyer. She had just gotten married at eighteen and was suing my parents for custody of me when I was nearly fourteen. She was not permitted to be present at my hearing, but the lawyer often mentioned her name as Alice Walker.
There were really only three possible outcomes to be had from this hearing. I could remain in the custody of my parents and likely be sent to another reform school, or secondly I could be given to my sister and her new husband and return to regular public education. Thirdly, I could be stripped of my rank and shoved into the workforce. My school seemed to be favoring the last of these outcomes. The administration insisted that no amount of further education could effectively cure me of my insatiable inclination to sin and so I clearly threatened the fabric of our organized society. Even I couldn’t entirely disagree with them, so the third outcome was the most likely.
“Miss Remo, do you know what I hold in my hand?” Their grey haired lawyer said with a smile.
“That is Mr. Walker’s copy of the Lord’s Word,” she answered flatly and glanced at me a moment. I had nothing to say in my defense, and her cool look did not faze me in the slightest. I had no desire for further education and couldn’t begin to imagine what it would mean to work as an adult, so a proper reaction was really impossible.
“Oh, but it’s so thin, Miss Riley. Does your school subscribe to a different law?”
“No, there are pages ripped out of it,” she said and several people gasped. I looked at them, naively wondering how they expected me to organize it otherwise.
“Our next piece of evidence ladies and gentlemen!” The old man held up the pages I’d ripped out of the Lord’s book and started reading aloud some of the things I’d written on them. I’d never imagined the notes would be read for an audience and hadn’t held back any of my questions. The ones the lawyer wanted to harp on the longest, however, were about sexuality and the differences between men and women, the details of which I’ve been told tend to elude me. “And Miss Riley, what did Mr. Walker tell you when you discovered this atrocity?”
“He said, quite unashamedly, ‘The priests are the ones that told me to seek my answers in the Lord’s book. But I couldn’t find anything. It didn’t make any sense. What else could I do?’”
My sister’s lawyer was tapping his pen nervously and looked at me with his thick brown eyebrows knit in concern. “Did you really say that to her?” he asked.
“I did,” I answered honestly, and he just shook his grey head.
It was rather quickly decided that I was to be stripped of my membership in the church, and because I was no longer registered to a religion I was automatically placed in the lowest caste. I was to enter the menial workforce and remain in that caste until I practiced and proved my devotion to one of the accepted religions.
My sister managed to arrange simple work for me in an old archive building, fetching and shelving obscure paper books for elite academia. It was a perfect occupation for a reclusive person like myself, and the archives became a treasure of endless amusement and knowledge that I never wanted to leave. I often found myself wondering why my parents hadn’t gotten me the job sooner, instead of wasting money on that ridiculous school. I suppose it was for the sake of my soul, which I would have sold to a magician in red for some magic beans if I thought they’d help me climb out of that place.
So, while my formal education ended at thirteen, I was able to continue learning on my own by reading the information in the books and computers at the archives. I ended up learning about the world in a rather disorganized fashion, however, often coming to strange conclusions about what I was reading based only on my whims and emotional attachments.
It was also easier for me to make friends with my co-workers at the archives than it had been with my classmates, as many of them were also young, hopeless sinners. I found it to be a very simple life and didn’t have any complaints about my having been moved down in caste. My studies and easy life were cut very short, however, because the archives were shut down within two years of my arrival. A new political group had taken control of that sector, and they were not very partial to academics.
My co-workers and I were to be relocated as librarians of some lower class schools in the most isolated sector of the Middle, beyond the woods and farms, almost to the Outer Rim. I had also made no progress choosing a suitable religion, so there was no question that I’d likely remain in the low grade workforce forever. It would be better to send me to an isolated sector, and so I had readily volunteered.
The move began in early winter, and that was how two of my coworkers and I suddenly found ourselves standing at the edge of the massive, seemingly endless river that runs between our part of the world and the Outer Rim. All I knew of this region called the Outer Rim was more like myth, tales of a mysterious, dangerous, and dirty place, far below acceptable living standards. But then again someone dear to me had once said that it was only in the Outer Rim, with no rules or money, that one could truly become free.
I remember the distant mountains of this mythical place looked completely desolate, just huge, snow speckled peaks floating high above on thick mists. We didn’t have mountainous land in the Middle, and this was the first time we’d been far enough out to actually see the peaks. I stared at them for a long time, the spark of hope in my chest flickering wildly as I tried to find any sign of life.
I was just barely sixteen then, still fairly short at about 164 centimeters and still quite round and chubby. My dark curly hair was as usual a bit overgrown, flying around and even clinging to my long, dark eyelashes.
Ever since I was a child women would tell me how envious they were of my eyes, and I used to sometimes get the strange idea that they’d only sent me to the Lord because my eyes were prettier than theirs. This did not foster any vanity in my young mind so much as it touched on a strange paranoia that I was secretly a girl. Most would probably agree that I am ‘plain, with pretty eyes.’
And I remember I felt especially small and plain as my pretty eyes stared at those stark, snow covered mountains. The three largest peaks were rounded like the backs of sleeping giants, breathing so slowly that we could not see the inhale or the exhale. They were just waiting beautifully, sleeping through the day until there is a brighter tomorrow. It seemed like a good idea; that’s what I would do if I were a giant immortal.
I started to wonder what it would be like to live in that world of grey and white and stare across the river at our thick, green forest. Why do the people of the Outer Rim stay there? It must be as everyone says; they’re born there and because it’s what they know it’s what they love. I felt like I ought to pity those born into that hardship, but I had no real sense of their humanity or my relation to them.
A hand pressed onto my head, and I looked up at one of my coworkers. “What’s that face for, Avery?”
Guy was one of my only friends, with a stubbly face and a chubby but naturally muscular frame. He wore silver glasses that were broken and repaired perhaps a dozen times, and his eyes were an amazingly bright sea green. I was fairly infatuated with him. At nineteen he seemed very adult, and he was tall and thick, quiet and masculine, an ideal man really. His dark hair was blowing around in the wind, tiny balls of snow riding along the silky strands before disappearing into oblivion.
I blushed and looked down at the ground, trying to keep my heart from beating too quickly. “I like your hat,” he said and patted my head again. I didn’t look up at him, but instead looked back to the grey peaks. My hat was bright orange, too large for me, and constantly falling in my eyes. But it was warm, and I’d gotten it for free.
“Makes your eyes look green,” my other coworker sighed, leaning on one of the trees. Mora was thin and small, with beautiful short black hair and brown, smooth lidded eyes. She was the same age as Guy and very homosexual.
Guy’s sexuality was a mystery, as he was already nineteen years old but did not seem to be particularly interested in anyone. I probably enjoyed that about him. My own swung between a kind of complete indifference and intense, childish fantasies that were almost never realistically sexual.
“We should catch up with the group now,” Guy sighed in boredom and turned away.
“Let’s check out the bridge first. I can’t believe it’s real,” Mora countered, tramping down closer to the river.
“I don’t think we should. It’s probably dangerous.” Guy kept complaining but followed her anyway. I was still looking at the mountains across the water, at the thick fog that seemed to lull around the bottom and fall across the river like linen sheets. What was at the bottom of the mountains? Under the sheets?
The locals had told us that there was a large yellow bridge that came out of the fog sometimes. Long ago, they said, supplies used to come and go across for the towns on the edge of the world, but that had stopped many decades earlier when travel between the three major sections was forbidden. Still, the automated piece of old technology would sometimes build itself and remain open for several hours. We didn’t believe them and just assumed it was something they’d made up out of ignorance and boredom. But when we got to the river there it was, the largest crossing I could have imagined. Immense, yellow steel shot up against the bright blue, cloudless sky like a castle gate I’d only believed to exist in fairy tales about the old world.
I followed them calmly, walking in Guy’s large footprints to keep my ankles out of the snow. Mora was quickly making her way right to the edge of the river, daringly putting both hands on the first yellow pillar.
“Wow, it’s kind of warm!” she exclaimed.
“What do you mean, it’s warm?” Guy laughed, putting his hand next to hers. “Hey, it is kind of warm. Like it’s alive!”
“Really?” I hurried to see for myself. They moved away and let me touch it. It was freezing, and I was too slow to realize the trick before Guy pushed me onto the bridge. They seemed to feel bad when I stumbled in the snow but giggled anyway. “Bastards!” I laughed, quickly brushing the snow off my puffy blue coat and pants.
“You alright, Avery?” Guy asked. “What’s it like, being in the Outer Rim?”
I squinted over at the mountains, and they did suddenly seem much closer. When I looked at the fog, I thought for a moment I could see something moving within. My legs brought me a few steps closer, and then for some reason I can’t directly recall, I started to walk. What’s so scary about the Outer Rim anyway? No regulations? No money? Can I really make it there if I just keep walking away from here?
“Avery! Come back!” Guy called, but Mora was already walking up onto the bridge next to me.
“Chicken,” she teased childishly. She put a hand on my shoulder and bent down closer to my eye level. “What are you looking at, Avery?”
I stared for a moment. “The mists. I thought I saw something. Like snakes.”
“You idiots, come on,” Guy called. “I’m going back to the inn without you.”
“Go on then!” Mora laughed and walked ahead of me. I followed her, still mesmerized with the movements in the fog. It looked soft and alluring, now more like layers of a sheer white dress blowing in the wind. The wind had gotten quite strong, and there was a faint, extremely low rumbling sound. The water underneath seemed to be stirring, and I assumed the sound had come from the river. I walked out to where Mora was standing, both of us looking at the shapes in the mists.
“Do you hear something strange?” I asked. She shook her head and laughed, telling me that I couldn’t scare her. “That grumbling? I’m serious. Is it the river?”
“All I hear is the wind…” The bridge jerked, and she stopped short, eyes flying open. We looked at each other, frozen with fear for a moment.
“I think maybe we should run,” I gasped but just stared at her surprised face. We both suddenly bolted, but the water under the bridge began flowing extremely quickly, the whole thing groaning and pulling us backward as fast as we could go.
“Hurry!” Guy yelled. Mora was a much faster runner than me, and she made it to the edge just in time to grab Guy’s hand. It felt so far away…had we walked out there so far? I looked ahead of me, watched as Guy held on to Mora’s hand so tightly that the force of the bridge pulling back sent him into the water. Mora panicked for a moment but wrapped both of her thin arms around his, trying to pull his enormous body out of the fast flowing current. I finally made it to them, grabbing his other hand and pulling him out and up onto the bridge. He fell on top of us in a warm, wet heap, the three of us trying to catch our breath as the land rapidly disappeared. We were being pulled into the mists on the other side, and we could do nothing but stare back at the raging river, at the massive evergreens that grew smaller and smaller.
“The water… was warm,” Guy finally gasped. “Why, do you suppose?”
Mora was still holding onto him tightly, and she just shook her head, eyes full of tears. We were still for a very long time before we slowly began to be enveloped in the soft mists. It almost felt like they were soothing us, trying to distract us from the harsh, metal, grinding sound of the bridge that was pulling us away from the only home we had ever known. It suddenly dawned on me that we had no idea what was behind the mists, and I stood up, facing our future of snake like shadows draped in white.
“I think we have to get off the bridge,” I said, and they both looked at me. “It’s being eaten.”
“Being eaten?” Mora scoffed.
“How do you think we’re staying in the same place and moving closer? It must be, being pulled into to something. Can you see the land?”
“We can’t see anything in this fog,” Guy growled, looking from side to side.
“How far is it to land? We’ve been sitting here such a long time; shouldn’t we be nearly there?” Mora looked up at the sky. “Oh, look at the mountains!”
The mountains had become very close, and I could see that they were not at all as still as I had supposed them to be. There were people moving, working, and living in little houses and buildings shoved between the rocks and snow. What were they doing, moving so rhythmically? Like a cloud of gnats, clinging to nothing but one another.
“The water is slowing down!” Guy exclaimed. “Maybe we can swim back across?”
“We’ll never make it that far. Someone will come get us when they find out we’re missing. They’ll see our footprints in the snow near the bridge,” Mora returned.
I was skeptical that anyone would find us worth the effort. “We’ll build a boat.” I turned away from them, staring into the mist as the grinding became louder and louder.
“Someone probably has one we can borrow? Buy passage?” Guy said nervously, looking in the same direction that I was.
“I somehow think… there are no boats leaving this place.” I looked to our side. The noise had become extremely loud, and the vibrations on the bridge shook it like the metal was being chewed to pieces. “Right now, we have to get off this bridge!” We had to yell everything to be heard.
“The water could be worse! We could drown!” Mora complained as I went to the edge. I ignored her and took off my jacket, Guy doing the same. “You two can’t be serious!”
“I’d rather drown than be eaten! We’ll get in the water and swim away from this bridge as fast as we possibly can!” I tried to climb over the railing, but I was too short. Guy helped me over, and I found myself on the outside edge, looking down into the waves of a dark, livid river. Am I insane? And then, I saw what looked to be the shore, large chunks of ice in a frozen sheet. “Look, jump in and swim for that shore line!”
“Come on Mora!” Guy yelled to her, offering his hand. “We have to go!
“We have to go now!”
She finally removed her coat and took his hand, both of them climbing onto the other side.
“On three!” I decided but didn’t start counting.
“One,” Mora yelled.
“Two,” Guy continued.
I swallowed hard and yelled, “Three!” as I jumped feet first into the water. I assumed they followed and was suddenly enveloped in the surprisingly strong and warm current. I swam against it, not sure which way really was towards shore, only positive that wherever that water was going I did not want to be there. It felt like I was swimming for hours, pulling, pulling, swallowing liters of water and dirt as I pushed my body against anything that came in my way. Then, I could see something white ahead of me. With renewed hope I swam toward it, my body feeling light but also weak against the current. One of my strokes hit something hard and sharp, cutting the top of my right hand before my left slapped on top of it. It was rock, covered in a sheet of melting white ice. I rested for only a moment, feeling around for a place that I could pull myself out of the water. I was pushed down stream, still holding onto the rocks, searching for some kind of footing.
“Avery!” someone was yelling. “Avery!” The water had changed, like it was sucking me down into it instead of pushing me along. I sure it was a giant mouth, and I was being sucked and pulled by warm saliva to the throat. But I listened to the sound of my name and pulled on the rocks, pushing my hands under me, pushing and pulling, reaching for anything so long as I would not be eaten. And then my cold hands touched something warm and thick, my arm almost falling out of its socket as Guy ripped me from the water.
We fell backward on the shore, and Mora was standing above us, watching something with huge, frightened eyes. We followed her gaze and also watched as the bridge split into neat, long pieces and reeled into a giant, dirty machine that clamped shut harshly on each piece it devoured. The opening of the machine did strangely look like an ancient face, and the bridge had been its long, discolored tongue. I turned away from the machines and looked at the face of the boy I was still lying on.
“You were right, Avery. The bridge was being eaten,” Guy laughed nervously and pushed me off.
I rolled away and slowly stood on shaking legs. When I looked up from my feet, I was very surprised to find huge colorful fall leaves stuck all over my body. Then I gasped in shock as I gazed around us at the enormous, mostly bare trees. They were larger than any I had ever seen, and it baffled me that I could not see them clearly through the mists. The bottoms of their gnarled, brownish grey trunks were so large around that Guy and I would probably not be able to touch hands if we hugged the tree from either side. I tried to look up through their snake like branches to make sure that we were indeed under the same sky, but the enormous arms only faded away into the white mists above. I somehow thought it must have been a very old part of the world.
However, not being able to see the sky made my stomach twist in fear, and I said mostly to myself, “We need to get out of here.”
“I can’t move,” Mora sighed, sitting on her knees and holding herself tightly as she shivered.
“We’ll freeze to death if we stay here.” I took off my orange hat and twisted the water out of it. It was already mostly dry, and I was thankful for once that it was a cheap hat made from chemicals.
“We have to sit and get our bearings. You too. You’re going to pass out if you don’t.” Guy pulled on my sleeve, and I half tumbled to the ground.
We were silent a few moments before Mora finally said, “Guy, I’m sorry I went so far out on the bridge. Both of you, I’m so sorry. This is my fault.” She was sniffling and crying softly as she pulled herself into a tighter ball.
“It’s my fault too,” I said, tears stinging my eyes. I looked up again in desperation. “I was, was watching something in the fog and I… I think I actually wanted to cross.” We were silent again.
“It’s everyone’s fault. I pushed Avery onto the bridge to play a joke. It’s not very funny anymore, is it?” Guy laughed lightly, nervously, and stood up. “Avery is right. We have to get to a town. Or at least move to build up some body heat.”
“I’m so tired now,” I groaned. They were both standing, looking down at me, so I also stood. Guy led the way with Mora next to him and me following behind at a slightly slower pace.
“Are you alright, Avery?” Mora asked, falling in next to me.
“I’m going. I’m just going,” I panted. None of us were very used to physical exercise, but I was probably the worst. And none of the land there seemed to be flat, either sloping up or sloping down. However, we did eventually manage to find a sort of trail that cut across the hills.
I was no longer just cold but instead extremely hot all though my insides while my skin froze against my damp clothes. We didn’t have to walk far, perhaps three kilometers, but it felt like days and we stopped several times to rest and catch our breath. We were all surprised when we suddenly came upon a concrete road, and the three of us just stood at the bottom of the street, looking up a very steep and foggy hill at a tiny, industrial town.
“I have a feeling we should go back,” Mora said, wrapping her arms around one of mine.
“To where? To the woods? Besides freezing to death when night comes, what will we eat? What will we drink?” Guy said sharply. He seemed quite agitated, as I’d never heard him speak with so much anger in his voice. I rubbed Mora’s cold hands. My palms were warm despite the cold; they’re always warm.
“Let’s go.” Guy started walking up the hill, and we followed him silently. The first place we saw was a small, round building with various goods in the windows like socks, hats, coats, tobacco, and bits of food. “I think we just got lucky. You guys have money?” We all felt in our pockets, thankful that the contents hadn’t gotten washed away.
“Is our money even good here?” Mora asked. We just stared at one another, then at our money gathered in Guy’s hands.
“We’ll have to try. Maybe we can trade some things?” Guy suggested. Mora took off the necklace she was wearing and put it in the pile. We all added our communication watches, but weren’t sure wet ones would fetch a high price.
I suddenly felt a heavy gaze upon me, and when I looked up at the store a group of young men was standing outside of it, staring directly at us. They were all smoking brown cigarettes, dressed in patched up, earth colored clothes with pants shoved into tall boots that seemed to be covered in large bits of hard, white salt. They had their coats open, nonchalantly letting the cold blow in. Guy looked up as well but ignored them and led us to the store.
A dark skinned old man in stiff tan clothes had come out, scowling at the boys. “Quit hanging around here. I don’t need your kind of trouble you…” He stopped when he saw us, his jaw dropping. “And, what, is, that?”
The group of boys seemed to revolve around the one in the center. I guessed he was around seventeen or so, and he wore a knitted hat with bits of dirty, whitish hair sticking out from under it. He was quite a bit taller than me and thin, but the strangest thing about him was the ice blue color of his eyes. They were the lightest, coldest eyes I’d ever seen, pupils seeming somehow small and immobile. The freckles scattered across his nose were perhaps the only pleasant thing about him.
“River rats, I guess,” this one said in a dry voice. He smiled ever so slightly and took his cigarette out of his mouth.
“Where did they come from?” The old man still chose to speak to us through the boys. They all had a strangely sharp way of saying their vowels, and though they were speaking the same language I was used to it sounded very strange and unpleasant to my ears.
“Um, excuse me sir,” Guy spoke up. “We are actually a bit lost. And we were hoping to get a change of clothes and maybe find a communication port?”
“I don’t want to know what the hell kind of communication someone like you would be looking for. But I have clothes. One of you can come in. Only one kid at a time is allowed in my store. Strange foreigners or not.” Guy looked at us miserably, and Mora squeezed me tighter as he disappeared into the store with the old man. As soon as they were gone, the group of boys inched closer to us, except the leader. There were five of them all together, and they were circling us curiously.
“So, how did you get here?” the leader asked and finally approached us. His accent had softened just a little. He looked at my face, seeming somehow surprised for just a moment before it went back to blankness. He might have been a little pretty, but something still twisted my stomach about him. “Where are you from?” There was a long moment of silence, and I just blinked up at those horrible, frightening eyes. “We don’t get very many visitors from across the river. Especially women and children.”
I resented being called a child and stiffened a little. He smiled at that, shattering my confidence and making me stutter as I replied, “We, we made a mistake.”
“You did, didn’t you?” he laughed, taking a long draw from his cigarette. He bent down close to my face, letting out the smoke. I tried not to cough, but it was impossible. “Go back to where you came from.” He stood up, putting his cigarette out in the thick fold over of hat on my forehead. I just blinked at him in shock. It was humiliating, and after my eyes began to water in shame, my bad temper suddenly exploded. I angrily took a step toward the boy, but Mora held me back.
“And you better beware of the woods, sweetie,” the boy laughed. “The trees have been known to devour children.”
The door to the shop opened, and Guy returned. The old man started shooing away the boys again, and they left calmly, staring at us more than paying attention to the old man.
“And you three. Get the hell out of here. You’re even more trouble. I hope they get you for crossing the river. You got what you wanted, now get.”
“Let’s go,” Guy ordered, and we followed him back down the hill. He had a burlap sack full of things and didn’t talk to us until we were well into the woods. “I think we’re in even more trouble than we thought,” he said, unpacking.
“What do you mean?”
“That man was very afraid when I showed him our money. He gave me all this stuff for only what we traded and told me to never come near him again. Because we’re from the Middle. I asked why he was so frightened, and if he knew a way to get back to the other side. He said no one gets back. We aren’t allowed to go back or to be here.”
“So then what can we do? We can’t be here or there, then where?”
“Nowhere,” Guy said solemnly. “We weren’t allowed to cross. So some kind of police or something is going to find us. And I think they’re going to kill us.”
“Kill us? Don’t be ridiculous!” I half yelled, and they both shushed me. “We haven’t done anything wrong!”
“We aren’t allowed to be here. For so long it’s been illegal for us to go to the Outer Rim, right? Well, apparently that’s because once you go, you don’t come back.”
“Damn, what are we going to do?” I sighed.
“For now, I think we have to change our clothes and get rid of the ones we have.”
Guy started unpacking the sack. They were the same brown, patched up design the young men had been wearing.
“What about shoes?” I asked.
“He wouldn’t give me any shoes. Don’t worry, ours will get dirty like theirs soon enough. I hope these fit you guys.” Guy turned around and told us to hurry up and change while he kept watch.
The clothes were uncomfortable and scratchy against the skin but so thankfully clean and warm that they felt like silk for a moment. There were pants, shirts, jackets, and hats. I took off my orange hat, scowling at the burn mark in it. That ugly, skinny little bastard! If I ever saw him again, I promised myself, I was going to punch him in the face. I cursed him and dropped my hat on the ground.
“Here, I think this one will fit you better.” Mora gave me one of the larger jackets. It was far too big for me, falling passed my knees. But the one she was wearing fit her quite well, and we knew it would never fit around my chubby stomach.
“Are you dressed yet?” Guy asked, getting a bit impatient.
“Yes, we’re done.”
“Now turn around while I change.”
“Why should I? I’ll keep watch over this way,” Mora laughed and turned me around.
“Hey, I’m not some kind of pervert, you know.”
Guy just laughed and changed his clothes with only me turned around. We buried our old clothes under a pile of rocks and for some reason started to climb up. We’d been going for about twenty minutes before I asked to take a break and started to wonder why we were going up when home was surely in the other direction.
“I know it’s hard, but I think we should make sure to put some distance between ourselves and that town,” Guy explained.
“What about food and water?” Mora seemed quite unsure about the plan as well.
“We have a little. We’ll have to starve until we figure something out. We can also drink the snow.”
Mora continued to voice the same thoughts that I was having. “But why are we going up? Shouldn’t we head back towards the river and look for a crossing? Maybe if we went to that place that ate the bridge… maybe there’s a way to open it again?”
“I think that’s what they would expect us to do, Mora.”
“They? Who are you talking about? How do you know that old man isn’t just some nut-ball?”
“Have you ever heard any stories about this place?”
“Exactly. Why is it that no one has ever been here when it’s so close? Or is it really just that they’ve never returned? I think they die here.”
We were all silent, and Guy started walking again. I followed reluctantly, Mora trailing behind me solemnly.
“I feel kind of sick…” I was being hit in the stomach with dread. It reminded me of being at school, the feeling of a boy’s fist landing squarely under my ribs, twisting into me deeper and deeper.
“It’s not safe to stop right now. Keep moving.”
“I’ll catch up,” I sighed and sat down on one of the rocks.
Guy stopped, but Mora kept moving. He walked down to me, taking the front of my shirt in his fist and making me stand as he bent down to look at my face. “This is not a game, Avery!” He growled through gritted teeth. “Get up.”
I just stared back at him defiantly, right into his bright green eyes as I replied flatly, “No.” I was frankly getting tired of his masculine sense of entitlement, tired of following him to an illogical end.
He looked to the side, grinding his teeth together. “Fine. Stay here and die then.” I don’t know why, but I was very surprised when they started walking without me and even more so when they disappeared into the hills a few moments later. But for some reason my dread actually started to calm, and I found myself walking sideways along the mountain, slowly getting lower and lower until I could see the river. That is the way home; I’m sure of it. But what is really waiting for me over there? Perhaps it would be better to just stay here and at least die in an adventurous sort of way? I had no direct plan for the future and already no one was telling me where to go or what to think. The freedom was quite exhilarating. I looked toward the town, then to where Guy and Mora had disappeared. But it certainly is frightening to be completely alone…
Then suddenly a shrill, female scream blew across the mountain so loudly it felt like it was echoing against the dome of my skull, and the vibration caused my legs to instantly spring into a run towards it. I had no idea what was going on, but I needed to get to it, to do something. It came again from in front of me, and I was certain that it was Mora. I stopped to catch my breath, leaning on my knees. There was another scream, this time very close and lower down the mountain. I ran to it but stopped abruptly when I saw a group of people.
Guy was standing between two completely beige colored men. Their clothing looked strangely unreal, wax like, and their skin was the exact same color and perfectly smooth. They wore front brimmed military hats, and though I couldn’t see them very well, I thought perhaps that they had no mouths. I shook the absurd thought out of my mind and crouched behind some rocks, searching for Mora. It took me a few moments to realize that she was the dark shape lying on the ground in front of them, and she seemed to be holding her stomach, pale face gazing towards Guy.
Why wasn’t Guy helping her? He was just standing, staring down at her with a completely blank expression. One of the soldiers moved forward, pointing a sword of the same color as his clothes and skin down towards Mora. He held it above her with two hands, but she was still looking at Guy. I flinched as the sword came down with extreme force, right into her neck, blood pouring out of her like a soft, almost black stream. I thought I could hear her choking, and then it stopped, silence ringing in my ears as the soldier pulled his sword back into the air.
Then the soldiers calmly began leading Guy down the mountain, and I just stared in disbelief, too frozen with fear and grief to move. Are they going to kill Guy as well? Should I attempt to rescue him? What the hell could I possibly do to save him? And worst of all… had he… let them kill her?
With my senses sharpened from the horror, I heard someone moving far behind and turned around quickly. There was a small white shape of a soldier coming closer, attempting to be quiet. Like a hunted animal I had become perfectly still, just staring at his beige, featureless face and wondering if a being without eyes could see me if I didn’t move. He came forward just slightly, and I sprang into action, suddenly running as fast as I could, jumping over rocks and plants, more agile than I ever would have imagined my fat little body capable of. But the soldier followed me easily, slowly gaining ground. I could hear him giving chase, and as I turned to look at him I slipped in mud, landing in a puddle of cold water and chunks of ice. As I was on my stomach, I noticed that some nearby rocks seemed to be going down into the earth. The soldier was still fairly far behind, and my idiotic, panicked mind decided to slip down into the rocks.
As I shifted my body toward them, I realized that the rocks were actually stairs. I slid down them on my stomach until I thought I was deep enough into this strange ravine to stand unnoticed. Then, shaking but still too afraid to stop, I went down the wet steps at full speed. They spiraled down into a very warm, very damp area. I didn’t stop to wonder how the place was lit or why it was warm, and it was only when I got to the bottom that I realized there were small oil lamps on the flat ground.
I stumbled forward, feeling the walls for a way out but only finding rocks, alien plants, and mountains of moss. Then I fell to my knees in exhaustion, looking up at a strangely human shaped mound cover in the lush, bright green moss. It didn’t look like a skeleton, but more like a man sitting with his legs crossed. The shape was vaguely familiar, and I started touching it desperately, pulling the moss off of a statue. It took only a few seconds before I revealed a Buddha and two attendant bodhisattvas. I blinked at them, not quite comprehending what such an old artifact was doing at the bottom of a hole in the Outer Rim. And why were lamps lit, but no one had unearthed the statues? I kneeled in front of the Buddha in desperation, clasping my hands together like I had been taught to do for the Lord. I tried to remember any of the Buddhist prayers I’d read about, trying to draw inspiration from the statues. It was the medicine Buddha, and the two attendants were the Sun and the Moon. I wished it were a warrior Buddha or something, but prayed to the healer anyway. I had no idea what I was supposed to say for that religion, but I just clasped my hands together and tried to calm my fear with anything that I imagined might work. Anything but the power of the Lord; I’d given up asking him for help years ago.
Behind my whispering, I could hear movement outside the hole. It quickly grew louder, perhaps a struggle making its way down the stairs. I stood up against the wall, waiting for what would emerge. It was the pale soldier, as I thought completely featureless in the face and yet somehow staring at me hungrily. His sword was already drawn, and he was taking large, strong steps towards me. I just closed my eyes and waited, but before a second could pass, I heard a violent voice yelling and the sound of metals slamming against each other. I opened my eyes, unable to breathe or comprehend being alive. Dying in an adventure had not turned out to be quite what I’d expected.
The soldier was turned away from me, blocking a blow from the stairs above. His beige sword was pushing up against a silver blade held by the long, sinewy arms of a very pale young man. The two no longer seemed to acknowledge me, and the soldier pushed away the sword, beginning to go back up the steps but getting pushed back. It took me only a moment to realize that the one who’d rescued me was the same revolting boy that had put his cigarette out in my hat. But now he seemed much more mature, and though he was thin, his arms were muscled and fast, pushing skillfully and roughly against his bulky opponent. His hat and hair were also strangely askew, even completely falling off as the soldier gained the advantage and pushed him to the ground. His hair underneath the hat and wig was actually quite dark, pulled back tightly from his pale face.
The change in his appearance brought me out of my shock, and I searched frantically for a way to help. The soldier was pushing against the young man's blade, getting closer and closer. I picked up the largest rock I could manage and smashed it over the soldier’s back and neck as hard as I could. It was enough distraction, and the man kicked the soldier off of him, using the moment of pause to slice the soldier’s arm. I was extremely surprised to see red blood pouring out of the wound, and before I’d even removed my eyes from the arm, the man raised his blade again and drove it into the soldier’s chest, pushing himself on top and twisting the blade so that it cut all the way through the heart.
Strange darkness suddenly started closing in around me, and all I could see was a lithe arm pulling out the long, beautiful silver sword. The cross guard looked like crystals of silver ice woven together chaotically, all glittering with red as the thick blood splashed out of the soldier and speckled the man's extremely white skin. And then he turned and looked at me with broken black eyes, a small orb dancing in their center like the moon on a wide, soft lake.