A young man sat quietly on a hilltop as he watched the sky turn from a bright orange into a light blue as the day went on. He knew he shouldn’t be wasting time sitting here, but the cool mornings were the only opportunity for him to take a breath and have a moment to himself.
He rolled up the sleeves of his simple, cotton tunic as he felt the warmth of the sun begin to heat his skin. He closed his eyes and said a quick mental prayer to the Guardian, thanking him for the gift of a new day. The village Elder always said it was important to show gratitude early in the morning, and Vance was happy to do so.
He had much to be grateful for in this village that was his dear home.
The cool grass underneath him was still wet with dew, but he didn’t mind that his pants were going to be damp. He did lots of hard labor during the day, and it would dry in no time. It was hot during this time of the year in his village, after all.
He turned his gaze from the sky and towards the horizon where a grotesque metallic city shone like a beam of light, but it wasn’t something that he was looking at with intrigue or fondness. His brow was furrowed, he knew what lay in that metal city. Well, he had heard rumors, anyway.
That metal city, known as Xach City, was a place of contention for most people outside of those walls. It was well known that inside that City there was an army like no other, known as the Battalion, and in that army they employed men and women who could fight like ferocious beasts and destroy anything in their path. Vance had heard from his neighbors that ‘human experimentation’ went on in that evil city. Vance couldn’t even imagine what that entailed, but he figured that’s how the Xach City military became the fearsome thing it was now.
“Vance!” a voice called out from behind him and he turned to look over his shoulder.
A young girl was walking up to greet him, but she looked like she was almost out of breath. Alarm bells rang in Vance’s mind as he watched his little sister begin to make her way up the hill, struggling with each step as her skinny legs tried to carry her onwards.
“Timera!” Vance exclaimed as he hopped to his feet and ran down the hill to meet her. “You are not supposed to be doing strenuous activity. You know that! The village healer told you so.”
Timera scrunched up her face, but then she sighed. “I know,” she coughed, but then took in a deep breath and looked up at him with that sparkle in her deep brown eyes that almost always seemed present. “I just missed you. It gets lonely being stuck in the house all the time, especially when...”
“Is dad awake? Did he bother you?” Vance demanded to know. “He’s probably still drunk from last night.”
“He didn’t bother me, but he left the house an hour ago,” Timera said with a small shrug as she looked down at the ground. “I expect he’s going to try and find a drink, or two.”
Vance nodded in agreement, but then he noticed her darkened expression. He didn’t want her to be sad, and if being inside the house was making her sad then he would have to remedy that quickly.
“Where do you want to go? I should take you back home, but I think you’ve been inside for too long,” Vance said with a sympathetic smile as he put a hand on her small shoulder.
Timera looked back up at him with a bright smile, her eyes wide and sparkling even brighter than before. She took a moment to catch her breath before pointing towards the summit of the hill where Vance had been sitting moments before.
“The top of the hill! I want you to tell me what you were staring at,” she said with a cheeky smile.
Vance nodded and crouched down so Timera could climb onto his back. As soon as she wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned against his back, he lifted her legs and began trudging up the hill. He was strong, since he had always done laborious work around the village, but Timera barely weighed anything compared to what he had to carry and lift during his daily chores and jobs.
“Remember when we used to have picnics on this hill with Mama?” Timera asked suddenly.
Vance was startled by the memory, but he didn’t stop his steps. “I remember. A little,” he said. “I’m surprised you do. You were only three years old when she died.”
Timera hummed thoughtfully. “I just remember sitting outside under the sun. Mom’s black hair was shiny,” she said. “She kept putting a bonnet on me, and I didn’t want to wear it.” She giggled a little.
“You’ve always been stubborn, Timera,” Vance chuckled a little. He didn’t like talking about their mother, it always brought a profound sadness to him, but he knew Timera desperately wanted to cling to the few memories she had. He couldn’t begrudge her that.
Timera hugged her arms around his neck a little tighter, but not in a way that made him uncomfortable. She was hugging him, trying to find comfort. Vance looked down at the ground as he walked, not sure what else to say.
“I miss her, Vance,” Timera whispered.
“Me too,” Vance agreed solemnly.
“It’d be so different if she was still here,” Timera said.
They reached the top of the hill and Vance stopped, but he still held onto her. He could tell she wasn’t quite ready to be set down. “You think so?”
“You wouldn’t be the only one working to support us. Dad would still care about us if Mama was here,” Timera said with a firm nod. “She could keep him from drinking.”
“Maybe so,” Vance said with a small shrug. “But I don’t mind working. Really, it’s alright. Now, do you want me to set you down? Do you feel strong enough?”
Timera nodded, and Vance crouched down to let her off his back gently. She took a deep breath, flattening the wrinkles out of her worn yellow dress and quickly adjusting her knee high socks.
“Alright,” Timera said as she lifted her hand to shield her sight from the sun as she scanned the landscape before them. “What were you staring at while you were up here?”
“I wasn’t staring at anything interesting,” Vance muttered as he stood next to her. “I just wanted to look at the sky.”
Timera hummed thoughtfully, smiling as she looked up at the clouds. “I don’t think that’s all you were looking at,” she said. “You’ve always got worries on your mind, Vance. Are you worried about Xach City?”
“Worried about it?” he asked as he looked at her, tucking some of his pitch black hair behind his ear.
“I heard our neighbors talking about how evil it is,” Timera said as she slowly sat down on the grass.
Vance sat down next to her and frowned a bit. He wanted to protect her from how frightening the world was, but it seemed he couldn’t do that since they had such chatty neighbors.
“Don’t worry. No one from that city is ever going to bother us. We’re always going to be together, and I’ll protect you.” He nudged her arm lightly. “Right?”
Timera smiled warmly at her older brother. “I know you’ll keep me safe, but you need to keep yourself safe, too.”
Vance nodded in agreement. “I’ll be okay,” he assured her. “But we really should get back to the house, okay? You’re gonna get sick with how chill the air is.” He stood back up, then held his hand down to her to help her to her feet.
Timera wobbled a little as she regained her balance, but Vance made sure to hold her up until she was safe. His brow furrowed with worry as she watched her, because he could tell she was getting weaker. No matter how much she ate, or how much sun she got, or how many walks she took, she was not getting any better.
But Vance didn’t know what to do, and he wanted to believe that the Guardian would heal her. The village Elder said the Guardian loved them, and if that was true then surely he would allow Timera to live a very long life.
“Well, thanks for letting me come out for a minute, anyway,” Timera said. “Turn around so I can get on!”
Vance did as he was told and she carefully hopped onto his back, and he rose to his full height as he began to walk her back down the hillside. She started braiding a piece of his hair as they walked, focusing on taking even breaths and trying desperately not to cough.
“We can go out for walks more often, if you want,” Vance suggested. “But let’s do it when it’s a bit warmer out, alright? That way it won’t hurt your lungs so much.”
Timera smiled and tied off the braid gently. “Yes,” she said. “I would like that very much! The healer did say that going for walks would be healthy for me, you know.”
“He did, but not up hills, alright?” Vance chuckled lightly and then finally approached their small home. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it suited their small family.
The house was made with logs, like every other house in the village, and it was insulated with a cement like substance that they made just for their homes. Their house only had two bedrooms and one large living space which was connected to the kitchen area. To most modern people it would be seen as a hovel, but Vance it was comfort and safety.
He set her down in the main room carefully and then walked her to her bed so she could rest. Vance carefully tucked the blanket around her, making sure she would stay warm and comfortable while he was out for the day.
“Alright,” Vance said as he stood upright and gave a small smile. “I’ll be off.”
“Have a good day at work!” Timera as she lifted her arms towards him for a hug.
Vance leaned down to hug her small frame, and then he let her go and turned to walk out of the room.
“I will! Rest up!” Vance called back to her before exiting the house.
As he began to walk over the building site where the new storehouse would soon be standing, Vance saw his father wobbling towards their home. He had an empty bottle in his hand, so it seemed that he had found someone to take pity on him and offer him a drink, despite being penniless. Vance was not in the mood for an altercation with his father, so he averted his gaze and quickened his steps to avoid him.
He felt a hand grab his bicep to stop him, and Vance wanted to pull away but then the grip became like a vice and yanked at him. Vance looked at his father sharply. “Let me go!” he snapped. “I have work to do, unlike you!”
His father let him go after a moment, then shook his head. “Show some respect, boy,” he managed to say between slurring words. “A son shows his father respect.”
“Then maybe you should be a respectable person,” Vance scoffed before he finally got away from him and continued down the dirt road. This was a daily occurence, so he was used to such obnoxious confrontations, but it didn’t make it any easier to endure. He was always humiliated because of his father, and he had to keep working hard to prove that he wasn’t anything like him. He was not his father’s son, he was his own person.
He would prove it to everyone, but most importantly he would prove it to himself.