Chapter 2: A Piece of the Sky
They were laughing joyfully in a kitchen made of swirling silver and blue, and my mother had let down her long, chocolate hair, incongruously confident yet radiantly beautiful as her brown eyes looked up at my father’s pink and yellow face. My father put his hand in my hair and bent down on one knee, his blonde beard tickling my skin as he brought his lips nearer. But a young, sun baked hand had already pressed over my ear to keep his flies from laying eggs in my head, and so I had no idea what he was saying, and I was sitting next to my older sister while she played the piano, and my little brothers were wrestling on top of its endless black expanse.
My sister’s golden hair was pulled back in an immaculate braid and studded with beautiful, virginal white pearls. I stared at her curiously, wondering if the world looked different through her blue eyes, though eyes that looked like her father’s, through a feminine girl’s eyes. Perhaps it was clearer? Cleaner? Or brighter? I was the only one of my siblings with eyes like mine, like specks of moss growing lightly over the dry earth.
I leaned my head on the piano player’s shoulder, but her arm wasn’t as soft as I imagined a girl would be, and now her smell was much more familiar and arousing. I watched the children fight, both somehow the size of school boys. The white cloth next to me was warm and smooth, and I reached a hand over and wrapped it around myself until I was pressed against bare skin. He looked down at me with smiling brown eyes, and tossed his messy blonde hair a little before he leaned down and lightly kissed me on the mouth.
And then I was suddenly lying down and pressing my face into a soft, warm expanse of flesh. I could no longer see, and it took me a moment to realize I was vaguely awake but with my eyes closed. I didn’t want to open them, and I squeezed them tight, clinging to whatever warm, soft thing this was that I had my arms wrapped around. But then the warmth suddenly rejected me, turning against my grasp. I only opened my eyes when I felt someone touching my face, and I half expected to wake up nine years old again. I also remember the light being dim and very orange, reflecting brilliantly off pale skin and deep, wild red hair.
“Go back to sleep,” a dry voice whispered. Two completely black eyes slowly blinked at me, and a hand touched a little bit of my hair, then came down over my eyes, lightly pressing them closed. I kept them shut, but reached out my arms, pulling this frightening person to me so I could take in deep, desperate breaths of them, my head hot and swirling downward back into death.
When I woke I was under layers of blankets, yellow light glowing through the coarse fibers of the thin blue I’d pulled over my head. I wasn’t sure if I was alive so I didn’t move for a few moments, afraid that I wouldn't be able to. But I could hear movement not far from me, and there was a weak but quite appetizing smell. My stomach twisted in hunger, and I put a hand on top of it as if that would keep it still. A little monster was sitting at the bottom on a rock above the swirling acids of doom, roaring incessantly out of loneliness. I needed to eat something so it could build friends from the fragments. Then I finally realized that not only was I completely naked and clean but, irrefutably, alive.
“Are you awake?” the dry voice questioned, and I very slowly peeled the blanket away from my head. It seemed to be the man that had killed the soldier, but he was not facing me, and all I could see was his lean back and dark, tousled red hair. He was wearing a thin white shirt, crouched down in front of what I could only assume was a hot plate. I didn’t answer, and he looked over his shoulder at me. I immediately brought the blanket up over my mouth and nose, hiding my surprise that his eyes were no longer blue. They were the black I’d seen the night before, and it embarrassed me horribly to realize that the moment of reaching out to him had not been part of my other hysterical dreams. “You are awake then.” He looked back to the pot. “Are you hungry?”
“Who are you?” I squeaked, still hiding under the blankets.
“You don’t remember me, huh?”
“Are you… the one who ruined my hat?” I sat up and watched him curiously.
He was silent a moment before finally answering, “Yeah. I was trying to scare you away from the woods and up into town.”
“But, but your eyes…”
“I was in disguise,” he laughed lightly. “We were… watching the bridge.”
“Your friends… took a wrong turn,” he sighed miserably.
“Do you know where they are? Are they alright?” My stomach twisted and sank as I remembered the motion of an ivory blade sinking into Mora’s neck.
“You already know the answer.” He had turned away again and was ladling soup into two ceramic bowls.
“But one of them was still alive. I saw him!”
“Trust me Avery, he’s dead.” He stood and walked over to me, handing down a hot bowl. “You should eat this.”
“No, I’m not hungry.”
“You ought to be. You’ve been asleep a lot longer than you think, and if you start eating your appetite should come back pretty quickly. I took you off meds yesterday.”
I had no idea what he was talking about and was too afraid to question. When I took the bowl from him it was much hotter than expected, and I almost dropped it. But he caught the scalding hot thing easily and set it down on the floor in front of me. “Sorry,” I said and pulled the blankets over my newly exposed skin.
“It’s all right. I forgot people like you have soft hands.” He was holding the bowl comfortably, his strangely pretty mouth blowing streams of white into the air. I still thought he was overly skinny, but he was muscular as well, veins and muscle tissue visible in the arm that was holding his bowl. His skin was extremely white, and when you looked closer there were light freckles scattered all over it. He also had a square jaw line, but his face was rather feminine and pretty. And his eyebrows were dark and arched, nose small and round, slightly large lips, a long, smooth neck. For a moment, I wondered if he was a boy or a very masculine girl, but I didn’t know how I could ask such a question. I had assumed he was a boy, but as I stared at him, at the smoothness of his throat, I couldn’t be sure. His chest was flat, but his hips were slightly wider than I normally saw on thin men. However, he was also decently tall, perhaps over 180 centimeters or so. But then again I suppose some girls are tall.
I just stirred my hot soup with the two sticks he’d given me. I didn’t know how to use them for eating and eyed him closely to see if I could understand without having to ask. He crouched down beside me, and I covered myself with the blankets again.
“Do you want to get dressed first?”
“Why am I naked anyway?”
“Your clothes were stained with blood so… I just left you in a blanket for convenience.”
“Blood? That thing you killed... Was it human?”
“Mmmm,” he grumbled and stood again. “I do have dry clothes for you now.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“I’m aware.” He stared down at me, and the eyes that I’d thought were so soft and warm the night before were only dark and hard and frightening. I pulled the blankets around me tighter.
“I’m sorry. Can I have my clothes?” I asked meekly.
He didn’t say anything and brought a pile of clothes and dropped them in front of me. I brought them inside the blankets and rewrapped myself all the way up to my eyes. He was ignoring me and eating his soup, sucking in the long noodles silently. He really was a pretty man, and it was almost enough to distract me from my strange, rather terrifying situation. Besides, hadn’t I wanted to come to the Outer Rim? I just never imagined two people would have to die for me to do so.
“Stop staring,” he growled and turned away. “Aren’t you going to put on the clothes?” His voice was quite male, perhaps just a little bit higher than one might expect. It also had a bit of a coarse, dry sound to it, but it was oddly soft and pleasant.
“I’m sorry. You, you just look very different from the first time,” I lied about my intentions and started putting on the clothes. They were much softer and a better fit than the ones Guy had gotten. “It was a good disguise.”
“Yeah? The noodles in your soup are getting soft.” He seemed very tense and ran his hand through his messy hair, making the rest of it fall out of the tie and stick up wildly. He pulled a baggy brown sweater over his head and attempted to pull his hair back again but most fell out. Next he began putting on a belt, and I started staring at his hips, distracted from them only when I heard the sound of a sword being drawn.
The blade of the sword was quite long, fairly thin and flat with a small fuller running down the middle. The wide cross guard was the same beautiful, woven ice I’d seen before, the worn grip blackish grey, and the pommel on top a chaos of silver wire.
I sat cross-legged with my soup in my lap, using the sleeves of my green sweater to hold the bowl and bring it to my mouth. It was surprisingly delicious, and I drank the liquid quickly, still not quite sure how to use the sticks for the noodles.
He sat down on a large rock and started wiping his sword with a small cloth. I drank my soup and stared at his knee high brown boots, wondering how long it must take to get in and out of shoes with so many laces. He seemed like the type that would enjoy methodically taking them on and off. I actually found him quite disagreeable despite his prettiness; it was almost a shame that I was so in debt to him.
I was judging him and nervously fiddling with my green sweater when I felt a small white label sewn into the side. There was a name written on it, but the ink was very faded and took me a moment to decipher.
“Sim, sim- mon, sai-mon. Who is Simon?” I asked immediately.
He looked at me, then back to the sword. “I am.”
“These are your clothes?”
“They’re yours. I’ll cut out the tag for you if you want.”
“They don’t seem like they’d fit you.” I loosened the strings that held my pants on at the waste. The pants were a little tight and almost short enough for me, so I assumed they must have been his when he was younger and much chubbier. My long sleeved undershirt was the same as his, the sweater knitted with two different earthy greens, and the pants made of brown, worn in material. Where did he get these old clothes from on such short notice? I looked around, noticing several locked trunks in the big stone walled room. “Where are we?” I asked nervously.
“This is my home. We just got back to the village.”
“An illegally zoned one, to tell you the truth. But we’re fairly small so don’t worry. You’re very safe here. They’ll never notice such a small place.”
“Illegally zoned? By whose law? Those soldiers?” My heart had started beating in my head, making me feel slightly dizzy and insane.
He stared at me, then stood and sheathed his sword before setting it down. “You really don’t know anything about the Outer Rim, huh?”
“I’m sorry; I only know that it’s not very safe.”
“Well, you’re right about that in a sense. We built our village on restricted land because we are resisting the social order that keeps the people in this world poor and hungry and terrified. We’re trying to create a better place. A place of equality and liberty for people of all sexes, all races, all abilities...” He went on, but I lost focus quickly.
I looked at the noodles in my bowl, feeling a bit sick for having not eaten them. If the people here were poor and hungry, how could he give me so much? He was also looking at the noodles, and I picked up the sticks, at first one in each hand and then two squished together in one hand, but the noodles just kept sliding off. I wanted him to show me how to use the sticks, but he just watched me struggle. It was making me slightly angry, and I wondered if maybe he was just torturing me for having been born in the Middle. It wasn't my fault I didn't know how to eat like them! Annoyed, I put the sticks down and used my fingers to eat the noodles.
He laughed at that, and his smile was actually very warm as he picked up my sticks. He placed them in his hands, showing me how the ends had a small slit, and then how to move them for eating. I tried, but it was quite difficult and made the muscles in my hand ache after only a few attempts.
“You’ll get used to it. Don’t try to get them one at a time.” He took back the sticks and easily gathered a bunch of noodles at the tip. “You might be able to get some in the slit if this is too hard right now.” I went back to trying, and even though it took me a fairly long time, I finally ate all the noodles. He watched me eat for only a few more moments, before he quickly stood and started straightening up.
The room was about thirty meters square, but the stone walls were very irregular, with a few larger ones on the ground that seemed to have been flattened or scooped out for utilitarian purposes. There were no windows except one very high up, and the only thing resembling a door was an archway in the ceiling, above a ladder.
“Are we underground or something?” I finally asked.
“Yes, but not far, don’t worry. If you open that door up there you’re above ground.”
“Are all the quarters in the Outer Rim underground?”
“No, that is particular to our village. The ground is warm because of geologic activity below us, so instead of wasting energy heating our homes we dig out areas to live in. This one’s been empty for a long time, but I fixed the water, and it’s clean and a good size for one or two people. You’ll be fine here.”
I hadn’t considered the fact that it was warm in there and touched the ground to find that it was just slightly heated. Was this the warm skin from my dream? I looked at Simon, remembering his hair and eyes. Or was it him that I’d clung to so childishly?
“I’m to stay here then?”
“If you want to go, you’re allowed to go, but being someone from the Middle might make it a bit hard to live here. And right now it’s very noticeable that you’re not exactly native.”
“What is so different about me?”
“You’re soft, yet you’re a bit arrogant in movement, not to mention the way you speak…”
“Eh, you seem much more arrogant than I am.” I crossed my arms like an angry child and wouldn’t look at him.
“Maybe,” he laughed, tossing me something. I caught it in surprise, looking down to find my orange hat. The color was strangely faded and a bit dirty, but the place where Simon had burned it with a cigarette was covered with a soft, green patch. “You shouldn’t have thrown it out. It’s a good hat.”
“It was better before someone burned a hole in it.”
He shrugged his shoulders without apologizing. “I think you should probably stay with me until you’re adjusted enough to blend in and defend yourself. Then you can do whatever you want.”
“Can you tell me how to get home?”
“No,” he replied firmly. "The barrier over the river is back up; you’ll either get fried or caught."
A barrier? Do they have that kind of technology in the Outer Rim? God, did we even have that in the Middle? It was too confusing for my sixteen year old mind to bear, and instead I refocused on an immediate concern. “Then could you teach me how to use a sword?” I was quite excited by the idea. I wanted to rip those monsters that killed my friends to pieces.
“Sure. And a gun would probably be helpful.” He seemed like he was half talking to himself.
“A gun? If you have guns why don’t you use them instead of swords?”
“What kind of place do you think this is? Of course we have guns. But our village is built in the territory of those soldiers you saw. They’re hard to kill with a gun because you have to wound them in certain places to actually kill them.”
“So they’re not human?”
He just seemed troubled and looked away from me again. “I won’t be able to stay with you all the time, but if you want to eat, you’ll have to work. Even someone as young as you.”
“I’m sixteen,” I said, wondering why he’d say I was so young. “How old are you?”
“I’m twenty…two? Twenty three, four maybe?”
“Oh.” I thought it was odd he seemed so unsure of his age, but I didn’t feel like I should question him. Maybe age wasn't so important there?
“You’re very odd, you know. Aren’t you afraid of anything I’m telling you?” He was staring at my puzzled face almost like he’d laugh.
“I don’t know. I think that, maybe, it’s because I’ve been thrown into a new life more than once. I just, I do what I’m told.”
His slight smile was completely gone already, and he hooked his sword onto his belt. “Before you start working to earn your keep, we’ll give you some time to rest and adjust… and to grieve.” He had one hand on the ladder. “I have to leave for a little while.”
“Wait, can I come with you?” I stood up, suddenly filled with anxiety.
“No. You’re repressing the shock of all this. You need to rest.”
“I can’t. Please don’t leave me down here!” He just started to climb the ladder, and I ran over to it, gripping the bottom fretfully. “Please,” I begged. My eyes already felt damp, despite my effort to remain calm. His face started to blur into water, and it took me a moment to realize he was climbing back down. I moved out of his way, looking down at my feet and making the drops fall out of my eyes and onto the brown floor.
It was such a strange floor, not dirty and yet seemed to be made of dirt. Would this be the floor I came home to for the rest of my life? Would I climb down alone into this little hole? I had my own little room at the school as a child, my own tiny one room apartment when I worked at the archives, but this little hole in the ground, though pulsating with warmth like a womb, frightened me immensely. I had no desire to be unborn.
“Avery,” Simon said my name, and I blinked out of my hysterics. He had a small pale cloth and was wiping my face. I looked up at him, and his troubled face forced itself into an awkward smile. “I’ll make you something to help you sleep.”
“You won’t leave me down here, will you?” I grabbed his arms like a frightened child, even though I’d just been boasting about being sixteen years old. He didn’t answer and forced another vague smile, taking his arms away and putting the cloth in my hand. Then, he went to the hot plate, filling a small pot with water from a nearby tap.
“There are more packs of soup here, if you’re hungry. You probably will be. And there’s some tea. We eat food in rations though, so be careful. The tea runs out fast because you can only buy a little. You can eat a lot of soup though. Things like tea and meat and vegetables are more expensive, and I forget to get them before my ration expires. I can’t really cook so… Oh, and the water is fine to drink here, but be careful at public places until you’re used to it.” He was rubbing the back of his neck nervously as he took a small pouch from his pocket, sprinkling bits of something dark into the water. “This isn’t tea, and it’s a little bitter. I don’t have sugar.”
“I don’t like sweet things,” I sniffled and sat down in the pile of blankets. I was playing with the cloth he’d given me. It was embroidered with little green frogs and leaves, and I wondered if perhaps a girl had made it for him.
“You can keep that handkerchief, if you want it. It’s clean.”
“I can really keep it?” I held it up, looking at the light shining through its coarse threads. “It’s not important to you? Is it from a girl? It’s very cute.”
He laughed a little. “No, it’s all right. If you like it, you can keep it.”
“I do like it. The frogs are very cute; they’re my favorite animal.”
“Frogs? You’re kind of odd, aren’t you?” he laughed, pouring the hot mixture into a big, ceramic cup.
“Well, toads are actually my favorite.”
“Oh? Drink this. It’ll relax you.”
“What is it?”
He laughed again. “Don’t worry about that. Just drink it.”
“Why? Is it something disgusting?” It did smell bitter but not entirely unpleasant.
“No, don’t worry. It’s just a plant, I promise.”
I took a sip of it, and it tasted bitterer than it smelled. However, the aftertaste wasn’t terrible, and as I took a few more sips I almost started to enjoy the taste. I was only half way through the cup when I could feel it working, the tenseness in my shoulders slackening, the aches in my body humming lightly. Simon made me drink all of it, and then put the cup in a basin of dirty dishes by the tap. My head was heavy and strange feeling, and as I watched him prepare the bed of blankets I desperately wanted to reach out and touch him. I tried, but he was further away than my mind had anticipated. The disappointment made me feel wretched again, and he looked at me curiously.
“Are you alright?” He helped me stand, and then I stumbled down onto the blankets. “Shhh, go to sleep.” He brushed my curls off of my forehead and then closed my eyes for me again.
“Stay,” I think I muttered, trying to reach my hands up to him, but they were far too heavy. He said something, but I couldn’t understand the strange words and fell into a deep, completely black sleep.
“My Future Life. I will live on a boat with all the different animals of the world, like Noah. My wife will be strong and brave, and have a pretty face and pretty eyes and long arms and really long legs. We will have two children. They will both look like just like her. I will be a fisherman, and we will eat fish every day. My wife will be a good cook, but I will be a good husband, and I will always wash the dishes for her. We will take good care of all the animals, and be kind to our children. And…”
“Sit down, Mr. Walker,” my teacher groaned and rolled her eyes.
“I’m sorry Miss Diaz,” I grumbled and sat down. I had been in school perhaps a few months, and I was quite surprised to find her so displeased, as I’d always excelled in writing at my public school.
“Who can tell me what is wrong with Mr. Walker’s essay?” Practically the entire class volunteered an answer, and she chose the boy nearest her.
“This is a not a fiction assignment. You can’t live on a boat with animals like Noah,” he laughed. “That is not realistic. And you haven’t been chosen by the Lord.”
“You shouldn’t say your wife is brave and strong and has long arms and legs. She will be too much like a man,” another criticized without being called upon.
“And you shouldn’t wash the dishes. That’s a woman’s job,” carped yet another.
I’d always helped my sister with the dishes at home, and she had told me that if I wanted to be a really good husband when I grew up, I should do the same for my wife. And she was so much older than me and so pretty and kind; how could she possibly be wrong? I crossed my arms and looked down at my desk, turning my paper over and drawing a tree on the back instead of rewriting it. When I turned it in like that I told Miss Diaz I was going to become a tree when I grew up because I was going to die and rot into the earth and the tree would eat me, just like what my sister said happens to the animals. She told me never to say such things again, put a big red x on my drawing, and smacked the palm of my hand three times with a thin, hard rod.
I vividly remember being horrified that she’d actually hit me, and the strange aching as I tried to close my reddened hand. I expected myself to cry as I usually would, but instead I found myself just staring at her tight, unhappy mouth and the wrinkles in every corner of her unmarried face. Was this the realistic life she’d planned as a child? The light dusting of purple makeup on her brown eyelids and the matching purple pin on her austere dress suit was all that allowed me to imagine that it wasn’t.
I woke up completely alone and suffocating, trapped under a pile of sweat drenched blankets. After clawing my way to freedom, I sat up, looking around the hollow in a daze. My stomach was growling already, but my body was too heavy to move. Every muscle was sore in a way I’d never known before, especially my calves and back.
I closed my eyes, breathing in the damp, dirt like smell. It was a very familiar smell, like rain. I loved it when it rained at school because it usually meant that outdoor sport activities would be canceled. Or when I worked in the archives, the other degenerates and I would sit on an upper balcony, eating our lunches, glad that there wouldn’t be many readers that day. I felt like I would cry, but at the same time something heavy and hard in the front of my brain was blocking the reaction.
My eyes wandered to the basin of dirty dishes, and I was filled with an uncontrollable need to wash them, almost just to spite my teacher. I did owe Simon my life after all; dishes were the least I could do under the circumstance. First, however, I had to silence the voracious little monster inside of me.
I got up to examine the tiny gas powered range I’d at first thought was a hot plate and the box of foods Simon had opened. Where did he go anyway? But I was used to this feeling of abandonment, I thought bitterly. I put some water in the pot and quickly figured out how to light the range with a match. It was a bit like camping. Next I mixed in some wheat and watched it bubble into thick, white cream. I turned it off and poured the wheat in the only clean cup, suddenly wondering how I was going to eat it without a clean spoon. I just drank it, and though it was tasteless it filled my stomach and smothered the monster with joy.
Next, I washed the largest pot in the basin with cold water and then used it to heat water for the rest. Then, as I washed the dishes for a strange man in what was apparently my equally strange new home, a very peculiar, almost intensely calming sense of freedom washed over me. It was perhaps the most adult, independent thing I’d ever done in my life. I even dried them, and then stacked them in some empty, hollowed out shelves I’d only assumed were their home.
When finished I lay back down on the blankets in exhaustion, reaching down from the pile and pressing the palm of my hand on the warm, smooth surface of the stone ground. I had started thinking about Simon’s skin again when I heard the door above creaking open, and I looked into the bright light to see a human figure silhouetted against it.
“You dead?” a woman’s voice called, and my heart sank. She climbed down the ladder rather roughly and jumped off before she reached the bottom. “You look alive. I’m Fleur. Ready to go up?” I still didn’t answer. “Ah, Simon said you’re not ready, but he wanted me to check on you. Sorry about your friends.”
“Simon… where is he?” I sat up, for some reason pressing the bottoms of my feet together and holding them firmly; the stretch felt nice.
“Wow, you really do have a funny way of talking. Simon’s probably getting ready for his match now. He’s in the finals.” She had very dark skin and a buzzed head, dressed similarly to Simon in clothes that almost seemed handmade.
“The finals for what?” I asked, but she seemed a bit more interested in Simon’s home than in me.
“Biannual sword fighting competition. How long have you been here?” She was looking at my face with half a smile, and she motioned her chin upward. “Do you want to go watch?”
“I…” I looked at the floor, unable to answer either of her inquires.
“How old are you then? Thirteen?”
“I’m sixteen!” I answered defensively.
“Oh really?” She laughed lightly. “You’ve got a soft face for a boy then.” Her big brown eyes were not threatening, but I couldn’t look at them long. “I think some fresh air will be good for you.”
“I, I’m really sore.”
“Don’t you want to watch him fight?”
“Who else do you know here?” she laughed and put a pair of short boots and other clothing in my lap. “I guess this stuff is for you?” I put the boots on slowly; even the bottoms of my feet felt raw. I thought I might even faint once I managed to stand, but after a moment I was fine. The brown coat came all the way to my calves, but it was a little tight around the stomach so we decided not to button it.
“Go on up the ladder. I’ll follow behind and catch you if you fall, princess.”
I stopped in the middle of the climb to glare down at her and grumble, “I’m not a girl.”
When we opened the door the sun was blinding for a few moments, but then I looked down into the shadows and could finally see the new world around me. The sky above was very bright and blue, but it seemed the village was in a kind of shadowed ravine or valley with very steep cliffs and mountainous land surrounding it in the distance. To me the town at the center seemed enormous and was filled with bustling people of all ages and races, talking and trading and building or making. There were perhaps a thousand or more of them, dozens and dozens of buildings with large, dirty roads and even more tents that seemed to make up a sort of marketplace. Beyond the village area was a small river and some trees and many fields of crops. Off to the side of the market was an even denser gathering of people and wooden bleachers set up in a circle. That seemed to be our destination.
“It’s not what I expected,” I gasped and was slapped on the back quite forcefully. “There are so many people.”
“We’re no small operation, princess. We’ve been here nearly five generations,” the woman laughed. “We’re headed down that way. Just follow me.”
“But Simon told me it was a small place.” I followed her very closely, and once we entered the crowd I tried not to touch anyone but was still bumped and pulled along roughly to make our way through. All the people we passed seemed to be looking at me strangely, but they didn’t stop in their activities or say a word.
“We are big for a place in the illegal zone, but the soil is great in this valley and the soldier’s don’t come. If you compare us to other villages in the legal zones, we’re a bit small though. Compared to a city we don’t even exist.” She had to yell a little over the noise of a truck passing, and I just blinked at her in confusion. Do they have real cities in the Outer Rim? Where does the gasoline for trucks come from?
I felt like I was going to faint, but I pushed myself forward, locking onto her despite having no idea who she was or where she was taking me. Perhaps she was Simon’s girlfriend? She did have a key to his quarters after all. However, she did not seem delicate enough to have made the little handkerchief I was still gripping in my hand, and she hadn’t said anything even though she had clearly seen it.
“Over here. I have seats saved for us.” She was guiding me towards the crowded bleachers, pulling me up and playfully pushing some acquaintances over to make room. Perhaps four rows below there were two people, a man and a woman, fighting very enthusiastically with swords. At first sight it was a bit frightening, but then as I watched I realized they both seemed to be having a great time trying to tear each other to pieces. I had never in my life seen men and women sharing in sport together, and I remember being a bit surprised by how well the woman stood up against the larger man.
“Looks like we haven’t missed him yet. He’s supposed to face last year’s winter champion today; it’s going to be a great fight. He was out on business in the winter so he didn’t even get to compete.” She had her hand on my shoulder, squeezing and shaking me again. I looked at her skeptically, wishing she would stop touching me so roughly; I found her intense masculinity very annoying. “Oh, there he is down there. See him?”
There seemed to be a lot of people standing on the floor outside the fighting area, and as I searched for Simon I noticed that the majority of people there seemed to have darker shades of skin. However, there were also a few pale ones, and so it took a few moments to spot him.
He was standing much closer to the fighters than the others, his arms crossed over his chest and his gaze directed as if he were watching very closely. I thought in reality he seemed a bit bored or perhaps preoccupied with something else. There was a shrill bell sound, and he blinked his eyes quickly, touching and talking to the people coming off the floor as he went on to it.
Another man stepped into the clearing as well, and he was much larger and older than Simon with thick dark muscles and a well grown beard. I thought it seemed like an unequal match, and doubted Fleur’s promise of a good show. They were chatting together pleasantly, and another man brought them each a dull sword, also talking pleasantly.
“It’s too bad they are facing each other so early on; they’d have made a great final match. They might both make it to the end still though.” Fleur was saying to the others around us. Most seemed to agree with her assessment, but I still doubted that Simon truly stood a chance of winning.
A shrill bell sounded, and the floor cleared except for the two men. They backed up about ten paces from each other, both with serious expressions. When another bell sounded they just continued staring a few moments before Simon started walking to the side, his opponent following in the opposite direction.
I had a feeling this was going to be just as tedious as any other sport and started to really wish I could lean my aching back on something and go back to sleep. My thighs also felt stiff in the position, and I was looking down at them by the time I finally heard metal against metal. Simon had attacked. The pace of the fight vastly increased after this, and I could even feel a vague excitement building in my blood. The crowd around me was quite enthusiastic, especially the woman next to me.
Overall Simon was standing up very well against his opponent, or so it looked to me, and was pressing on top of him when another bell rang. At first I thought he was the winner, but apparently it was just some kind of break.
“Man, he’s gonna lose, and I bet fifty dinei on that fool. He’s not fighting very well today. What did you do to him?” Fleur jokingly put her arm around my neck like she was going to punch me in the head, but I was too tired to struggle or complain. The pain in my back was excruciating by the time she got bored and just let me go.
When I was free I saw that Simon was still at the edge of the clearing, drinking water and talking to a few people. He didn’t seem to be in good spirits any longer, and I felt an odd tightness in my chest as I imagined his disappointment. Then he set his water down and, reaching from the bottom, suddenly pulled his shirt off over his head. I was just as suddenly thoroughly amused.
Simon was thin, but not nearly as slight as I had imagined. He had well defined muscles on his chest and arms, no ribs showing, and a smooth, flat stomach with a little bit of hair on the lower area. With his shirt off I could definitely believe that he was a man in his twenties and not even remotely still a teenage boy. The aging effect his bare flesh had was also enhanced by the fact that his extremely pale skin was absolutely covered in what I can only describe as ‘battle scars’. Every teenage girl’s dream.
Most of the dozen or so scars seemed to be longish, thin scars that one might get from being cut with a blade. Also, there were two large scars under his chest muscles, running almost two thirds the length of his chest with a space in the middle. The most prominent mark, however, was a larger scar on his side that looked more like a burn, completely different from the others.
“Wow,” I gasped a little and Fleur immediately started laughing and messing my hair.
“Woooo, you’re awake now aren’t you?” She teased and elbowed me slightly. I shrugged her away, wondering why she insisted on constantly teasing me and hoping her attitude wasn’t common in the Outer Rim.
“He really has a lot of scars.”
“Ha, a bit more than average.”
“What are they from?” She just continued laughing at me and then reached over and pinched my cheeks.
“Is that why you got kicked out of the Middle then?” A few of the others had suddenly started paying attention to us, and I shifted nervously. She didn’t seem to care what they thought. “For swinging the wrong way?”
“Swinging?” I was exhausted, my eyes still wandering to Simon and forgetting about the people listening to us. He was drying the sweat off his glistening skin with a dark cloth, smiling almost shyly and talking to his opponent.
“You know, liking guys.”
“No. I’m not like that. We, we just made a mistake.” It was my automatic response when a stranger asked me if I was sexually attracted to men.
“Don’t worry so much. I’m not going to get mad if you do. But you should know, Simon’s taken, at the moment anyway.”
“Does he have a girlfriend?” I asked, touching the handkerchief in my pocket. I half expected her to say that she was his lover, but I couldn’t imagine the two of them together.
“Not exactly. You’re such a cute little dummy.” She tried to pinch my cheeks again, but I blocked her hands without looking at her.
Simon had started fighting again, and I could no longer be bothered with her games. I watched him quite closely, strangely fascinated by his muscle structure. He was much thinner than any man I’d ever found attractive before. I would normally be paying attention to his older, thicker opponent; he was what a man was supposed to look like. But I liked the way Simon’s body moved with graceful, masculine aggression, and I liked the way his longish auburn hair stuck to the sweat on his pretty face and the back of his neck.
He was standing still for a moment, panting heavily as he watched the other man circling him. I remember thinking he looked as if he were an ice sculpture with his slick, perfectly white skin heaving and melting in the human world. He didn’t move from that position for what felt like hours in my dreamy young mind.
Then he attacked but was pushed back, the larger man pressing him backward with their faces so close that I couldn’t help but imagine that they would kiss. The idea made me feel almost as equally aroused as I was envious.
The whistle blew and I jumped in fear, making Fleur laugh again. Simon and his opponent bowed to each other slightly and started to walk away. Another man approached Simon when they cleared the floor and familiarly put his dry hand on Simon’s wet, bare shoulder. He was quite large and muscular, perhaps of mixed races with closely cut black curly hair and medium dark skin. I couldn’t be sure, but his eyes seemed rather light colored, perhaps even blue. He also had a dark, neatly cut beard, and a light coat of hair on his muscled chest. My sixteen year old eyes thought he looked old, but he was probably only in his thirties and quite attractive. Simon looked over at him, with a slightly shy, almost blushing sort of expression and then looked at the floor. My stomach twisted sharply, and my heart sank into dark, unreasonable jealousy.
“Who’s that?” I asked Fleur, and she laughed at me again.
“That, my little friend, is Simon’s girlfriend.”
“But he’s so old,” I whined immediately.
“Yeah, cute little boy like you probably doesn’t stand a chance. Me neither, don’t worry, I know how you feel. I don’t think we’re his type.”
“I told you; I’m not interested in that kind of thing,” I pouted, suddenly more tired than ever. “I just cannot believe they have that kind of relationship. It’s very indecent.” I looked back at Simon, and he seemed to be slightly annoyed with what the man was saying. The man was touching Simon’s hair, and by his expression I thought perhaps the man was joking or being playful. Simon angrily slapped his hand anyway, and my heart leapt joyfully into my throat.
“Come on, I better get you back before he sees us.”
“You look exhausted. All he has to do is look in this direction and we’re done for. ”
“But I’m fine.” I just blinked at her, too tired to actually follow. However, my legs somehow started to move, and we climbed down from the bleachers. I tried to see what was happening to Simon, but Fleur pulled me away, laughing and messing my hair.
“You’re totally in love with him already, aren’t you?”
“Of course not,” I blushed and looked at my feet.
“You do know he’s a transsexual right?”
“A what?” My head was spinning, and it was too loud for me to hear exactly what her answer was. There was something about a woman. “He likes women?” She laughed at me and waited until we were in a quieter spot.
“He was a woman.” I looked at her to see if she was serious, and I couldn’t tell because she seemed on the verge of laughing at me again.
“What?” I said after a while. “What do you mean?”
“Simon was born a girl. Now he’s a man, mostly anyway.”
My heartbeat quickened oddly as I thought about what she was saying, and we were already climbing back into the hole by the time I asked her, “How though? How does a girl really turn into a boy?”
“Medication, surgery. Simon travel’s a lot, and he’s been like that since before he came so I don’t know really. No idea where someone gets the money or connections to do that; has to cost a fortune,” Fleur answered, flicking on the lights. Then, she ran a finger under each of her breasts, right where Simon has the scars.
“That’s what his scars are from?”
“Just those two, I think. It’s from removing breasts. Gods knows about the rest of them. I don’t know anybody brave enough to ask.”
“Still like him?”
“It makes no difference. But he did save my life, so I’m indebted to him.” And it was true; I couldn’t really be sure that much had changed in my mind, being that his slight androgyny was already a fascination. Now that it had an explanation, albeit a strange one that I did not quite understand, this new dilemma just seemed to replace the old one. It also was not the first time I’d met someone whose sex was not entirely clear. And besides, what did it matter? Even if I did like him, even if he was this transsexual nonsense, we had no future and like everyone else he only thought of me as a fat, helpless, brat.
“Well, I’ve got to get going.” She put the key to the door in my hand, smiling about the handkerchief I was still clutching. “If you need anything I’m a few holes over, behind the light colored boulder. Knock before you come down though cause I might already have company.”
My anxiety rose at the thought of being alone, but it was not the same as with Simon, and I let her climb up the ladder without giving complaint. I listened to her closing the door and looked around the room a few minutes before taking off my outer clothes and climbing into the blankets. Then I just pulled a blanket over my head in misery, falling asleep soon after.
When I finally woke again it was to the sound of the door opening and someone almost clumsily climbing down the ladder. I didn’t take the blanket off my head, but it was a thin one and I could vaguely see shapes and colors through it.
It took me a moment to realize the intruder was actually Simon because his hair was chopped extremely short. He was sitting on a trunk, unlacing his tall boots when I peeked out from the blankets. He seemed quite uncharacteristically agitated but was also very lethargic about his task, not noticing me until he was almost through the second boot.
“Did I wake you?” he asked, smiling vaguely. I could tell from his glassy eyes and the smell of alcohol that he was quite drunk.
“No,” I lied. Simon pulled off his boot and lazily threw it to the side. “You cut your hair.”
“It was getting inconvenient,” he laughed lightly, shoulders slumped forward as he stared down at his feet. One of his socks had a hole in it, and he was playfully wiggling two of his pink toes.
I took my whole face out of the blankets, looking at his socks. Then, for some reason I thought aloud, “Did that man make you do it?”
“What?” He looked at me quickly, and the sharpness of his black eyes made me pull the blankets over my mouth and nose again. “How did you know about that?”
“When I was out today, I saw a man touching your hair… and you slapped him.”
“He didn’t make me do anything.” Simon looked at his feet again, and then looked back at me with his eyebrows knit together. “Why were you out? Did Fleur make you? She’s so pushy. I’m sorry. I should have asked someone else. I should have come back myself.”
“No, I, I wanted to watch the match.” I blushed, only my eyes looking over the blanket.
“Oh? Was it interesting?” He smiled slightly but was looking at the ground again.
I nodded but realizing he couldn’t see me said aloud, “Yes. You did very well.”
“I lost. But Leom is a very good opponent. The best actually. He ended up winning the championship again.” He put his hands on his knees and stood with a sigh. “Are you hungry? I brought you something.” He took an orange out of his jacket pocket and handed it to me. “Maybe it will give you some energy.”
“Thank you.” I took the orange with two hands, pressing it against my closed lips. The smell was familiar and the shape round and soft and comfortable against the palms of my hands. It relaxed me far more than I would have expected.
“Aren’t you going to eat it?” he asked and laughed a little. “Here, another one.” He took another out of his pocket.
“I want to hold it first,” I said into the orange.
“I like to hold small round things in my hands. Like fruits.”
He laughed at me and held out the other orange. “You can eat this one then.”
“I will hold that one too, after I am done with this one,” I laughed too, putting the extra orange in my lap.
“You are definitely strange.” He sighed and sat down next to me on the pile of blankets. He had his forearms resting on his knees and was staring ahead blankly, blinking very slowly and rasping slightly with each breath. His hair was quite short, and I thought it made him look strangely more feminine than his longer hair had.
“You look cold,” I said. “You cut your hair just before winter.”
He laughed and looked at me. “It’s almost spring here. The seasons are backwards.”
“Really?” I stared at him in shock, wondering if he was only trying to trick me.
“Yeah, we are pretty far from the Middle so the seasons changed course.”
I wondered how this was possible, but I was too tired to dwell on it and just went back to thinking about his hair. It really was beautiful, a dark auburn and thick with just a little bit of a curl. His short hair, however, looked very plain and dark and forced.
“You shouldn’t have cut it so short,” I sighed finally, too exhausted to have control of my manners.
“Oh?” he laughed. “Why not?”
“It’s too pretty to have it so short. It was better before.” I said it very plainly, but it made him blush and look away.
We were silent for a while before he said, “My b…. My friend told me I looked too much like a girl with it long. I don’t know why I listen to him.” He was looking at his exposed toes again, wiggling them in agitation. “He’s an idiot.”
“I agree,” I said, immaturely hoping Simon would break up with the man. “He looks kind of mean, and he’s way too old for you anyway.”
Simon laughed, blushing again, and looked at me just a little. “You’re oddly sweet, you know that?” He took yet another orange out of his pocket and gave it to me.
“Where are you getting all these oranges from?” I laughed.
“I was at the after celebration, and I got a little drunk, and for some reason I brought them back for you.” He took out a fourth and gave it to me. “They aren’t very sweet.”
“Fruit is a good sweet. Thank you. I’ll hold these later.” I brought the oranges into my lap with the other ones. “I feel like I’m collecting a nest of eggs.”
“Well, oranges are kind of like eggs. A tree’s eggs,” he sighed and looked up at the ceiling. “Do you really think I should keep my hair long?”
“Not very long, but so you can see how pretty it is. The way you had it before was good.” I didn’t answer in a very serious tone, and he smiled a little, still looking up.
“Pretty, huh?” I stared at him, but he was looking up at the ceiling and not at me. He really was very pretty, with his thick, nicely arched eyebrows, and long, dark eyelashes. I wondered if his eyelashes were as long as mine, and decided that they were fairly close. Then I looked at his square jaw, watching his smooth neck as he swallowed.
“Simon, can I ask you something?” I said, nervously still staring at his neck.
“Huh?” he said, apparently sleepy.
“I, I think that you might get mad at me if I ask. I just, I don’t know, and I want to hear what you have to say.”
“What is it?” he laughed dryly and looked at me.
With his eyes staring at my face, I blushed horribly and couldn’t find the words for what I wanted to say. Instead, I just blurted, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
He raised his eyebrows at me, and then stared off into the distance for a moment as he said, “Mmmmmm.”
It wasn’t an answer, but it somehow seemed fitting. Like when I’d found out he was transsexual, this new label for my question just replaced the old one. And I started to wonder, not for the first time, what it would be like not to be completely a boy or a girl.
“What about you?” he said, looking at me with a strangely knowing smile. “Are you a boy or a girl?”
“Oh, I’m a boy,” I answered immediately, squeezing my orange and pressing it against my mouth. We stared at each other for a while, before I finally looked down at the oranges in my lap.
“With a nest of eggs,” he laughed slightly.
“Well, maybe, sometimes, I’m a girl? I mean, like girl, not really a girl. ” It felt like a horrific thing to say, and my heart leapt up into my throat. I was shaking, feeling over all the oranges nervously.
“Don’t worry. Sometimes, I still am too,” he said, and I looked at him again, surprised and captivated by the softness of his expression. “You know, I have something I think you would really like.” He got up and went to one of the smaller chests, opening it with a key and then carefully taking a few wrapped items out of it. He came back to me, sitting so close that our shoulders were touching. I tried not to be embarrassed and pretended to be focusing my attention on what was in his hand.
It was wrapped in another embroidered handkerchief, this one covered in tiny blue birds. He uncovered it, showing me what looked like a round, opaque piece of glass. It was small enough that it would fit in a closed fist, perfectly round, smooth, and a bright, sky blue. He plopped the surprisingly heavy little ball in my hand. I absolutely loved the feeling of it resting in my palm, and I put my other hand over top of it, cupping it protectively.
“I’ve had it since I was a kid, when I lived on the other side of the far eastern mountains.”
Wondering what could possibly be beyond the mountains of the Outer Rim, I asked nervously, “What is it?”
“A piece of the sky.”
Simon fell asleep while I was still staring at the round ball in my hand. He was leaning against the warm wall, sitting at the foot of the pile of blankets. His face was actually quite funny, slack and unflattering, and he snored a little. I got up and put the ball of sky gently in the center of the oranges, and then I draped one of the blankets over Simon. Next I ate some more soup and started eating the first of the oranges. He had curled up into the bed of blankets, and I watched him curiously while I ate the fleshy, delightfully sour wedges.
His new sleeping position was much more flattering, and the cute way that he pulled his hands up near his face made my cheeks burn with embarrassing fascination. I found myself desperately wishing I could crawl into bed with him. Would he be mad? I could do it in a childlike way, and perhaps he’ll just think I’m clinging to him out of loneliness. Maybe it really is just loneliness?
I got closer to him, looking at his dark eyelashes resting against his amazingly white skin. My brothers and sister had skin that was almost as white as that, but they all had clear, sky blue eyes, nothing at all like Simon’s. And though I’d always been jealous of my siblings’ typically beautiful blue eyes, I found myself thinking that Simon’s black eyes were infinitely better. They opened slightly, and I moved away from him a little. They were soft and damp with sleep, glimmering in the low light. He held up his arm with a smile, inviting me under the blanket. I went inside immediately, and he put an arm over my shoulders, pulling me against him.
“You smell good,” he muttered, still mostly asleep. “Like oranges.”
“I was eating one.” He didn’t respond. He smelled like alcohol and sweat, but it was strangely not unpleasant. My face was on fire, and my heart felt like it was ten times its normal size, squeezing painfully in my chest. His head was far above mine, and I was looking at his smooth, exposed collarbone. I wanted to squeeze a little closer and kiss him right there, at the base of his neck. The thought embarrassed me horribly, and I pushed it out of my mind as fast as I could, desperately trying to avoid an erection. It mostly worked, and after some time I just fell asleep, his warm embrace pulling on my mind like a drug.
This is it, I thought as I slipped into unconsciousness. This is why I’d walked out so far on that bridge. I must have known this would be waiting on the other side. I had no other recollection of falling asleep with someone holding me, but somehow had been craving exactly this my entire life.