Ket sat in the library, book propped open. He wasn't really reading it anymore, just pretending now.
He liked the library, which many affectionately called The Mold-Farm. It was quiet, isolated, and always the same temperature year-round. No one bothered him, especially if he was reading, or pretending to read. Best of all, hardly any of the kids that would normally pester him at school wouldn't be caught dead in a library.
Except Emeral, apparently. But, she didn't pester him. At least not in the way the other kids did. He'd had all night to think about what she said, and it made him a terrible kind of nervous. It was like he wanted to be nervous, though, which was why it was so strange. He set the book aside and looked at the math homework due Monday. He'd kept the papers from last year, and it was almost the same, just different numbers.
That was great though: he loved math. He loved how neatly it all came together. There was no ambiguity, unless you didn't realize what you were looking at. Mr. Erst was almost right about fractions and rational numbers but Ket had developed his own definitions for them.
The others seemed a bit apprehensive about the long equations. But he enjoyed those problems the most; especially with negatives, and exponents like he was supposed to actually learn in middle school. He tried not to get too far ahead, because otherwise it would just be boring all the way through.
He looked up. The doors of the main entrance opened, but it was just someone leaving. When was she going to get here? He turned his attention about the place, observing its familiarity. It was a dingy place, but in a very homely way. Not gross or dirty. Broken in and well-worn, was more like it.
The smell was what he liked most. It was a musty mix of dust, coffee, wood, and paper. He didn't know what to call the smell of an old book, or if there was even a word for it. He wished there was, because it was one of the best smells of all.
Sound was not a library's real strong suit, as it should be. There were mumbles and mutters if one walked about, and less frequently if one was sitting still, as he was. A cough would travel from person to person, sometimes from across the entire room. If it liked one person you could really tell, because it just kind of stayed with them or went back to them a lot.
The lighting was very bright. Florescent bulbs radiated overhead in very orderly rows and columns. Third row and second column's left light was always blinking no matter what, but everyone whom it once annoyed now accepted its behavior. The lights illuminated an olive-brown interior with carpet that was once a vivid purple, but year after year of trudging and shuffling faded it to a murky gray.
The main attraction was the books.
Ket liked to scour the shelves, to try and find patterns of colors, or happen-stances of repetition, or how many of the same colors appeared in a row before always interrupted by another, and then back to the contiguous. He also liked to see how many titles began with The in a row, or if any books had the same words in their titles. It was not so much something he did on a regular basis; rather something he did to pass time during rainy days, or when he was bored at home and could not do anything else.
The doors opened again.
He looked up from the bookshelf, caught in his little game, and there she was.
She glanced around for just a moment, and then spotted him. With purpose in every step, she made her way to the table. "Good afternoon Arkethius," she said, as he arrived to the table as well.
He sat down with a sigh. "Can't you just call me Ket?"
She placed her backpack on the table and sat down. "Why? I like Arkethius, it sounds fancy and foreign."
"Everyone else just thinks it's weird."
"I don't think anyone else knows it."
"Well, good," he folded his arms. "The fewer the better."
She smiled, defeated. "Okay. I'll stop," she said, sincerely.
His expression showed guilt. "No, just... try not to call me it so much. And, it's not ar-keth-ee-us, it's ar-ket-thee-us; there's a tuh and then a thuh."
"Arkethius," she said once, a little slowly, then once again a little more quickly. "I think I like that even better."
He rubbed his hand over his forehead in dread. "Can we just get started?"
"Get started?" She asked.
He looked up from behind his palm, confused. "Weren't we going to study? That's what your mom said—and talking to her wasn't as easy as you said it would be."
"I know, I goofed and forgot to tell her." She held her arms up in an innocent shrug, "But, in my defense..." she tried to think of something "...You needed the practice. Besides, mom is nice."
"I guess it's all right," he said with a sigh, leaning forward and pushing the math sheet into the fray. "So?"
"Ugh!" She pushed it back, "Get that away from me."
"But it's due Monday," he said, pushing it out once more, "don't you want to work on it?"
"Can't we say we did and not?"
"Listen," he said, touching the book that lay on the table with his finger, "The kids in here are friends and the older one helps the younger one through something he already went through. I had big trouble with this part last year for a little bit so I know it's tough." He pushed the math sheet a little closer to her, "Just take a look."
She sighed. "All right...if you put it that way." She gazed down at the sheet, and immediately the glyphs on the page began to wiggle and twitch. It was like reading a sentence without spaces in it. She could barely tell where one thing started and the other thing ended. Worsened from the three or four pairs of parenthesis, her dyslexia was having a field-day throwing all the symbols around wherever it wanted.
"Apples grow on trees but grapes grow on leaves..." She said, placing a hand over her eyes. "Apples grow on leaves but grapes grow—aw dang it, I switched it again!"
"What the heck are you saying?"
She opened her eyes and blushed. "I-uhm..." She swallowed. "Well, I don't really like telling people this but... you told me about your..." she didn't want to say the word dad, "So...I guess it's only fair to tell you." She took in a breath, as if to brace herself. "I... have dyslexia..."
She waited for a smirk, a sneer, a twitch in his face to show bemusement. But there was none. It was as relaxed and sharp as ever, his odd stare an unreadable blank slate. "You do know what dyslexia is, don't you?"
He reached out and plucked the paper from her grasp.
"Hey! You're not supposed to take things from people."
"Keep your voice down, it's a library," he said, and fished in his backpack. A moment later he retrieved an 8-pack of colored pencils, and dumped them onto the table as quietly as he could. They clinked and clacked and schripped as he moved them around and picked the blue one up. He began writing, and not a second after the pencils began to roll. He growled, catching them and gathering them into a misshapen heptagon in his grasp.
He pulled the black pencil up and shoved it back down, and then went for the red pencil on the side. He hooked it against the blue pencil in his hand and began writing with it.
She looked on as he wrote, with two pencils in his hand forming a cross. She hadn't ever really seen that before, and thought it was kinda neat. She watched as he put pencils back and retrieved others, writing and writing. All the while the blue pencil sat idly in his hand, until at last with a twitch of his fingers, the blue and orange pencils traded places, and he made a quick swipe, and then put everything back in his other hand.
He lifted the paper, examining it for a moment, and then gently slid it in front of her so that it rotated.
She caught it with her thumb and looked, and the numbers leapt out at her as if they were all waving their arms for her clear attention. Now, she could see each grouping of parenthesis clearly, each one in its own color.
She could see the innermost because it was orange, then the next was green, then purple and red right next to each other, and then blue was the outermost. As she solved the simple equations in each one, she imagined the results changing colors to match the expanding levels of parenthesis, until at last she had three blue numbers. When she had the answer she looked up at the black-and-boring problem above, which Ket had already solved, and her answer matched his.
"Man... I'm an idiot," she said smacking a hand over her eye.
"No you're not. If you didn't get the right answer I can—"
"No I did, it's just...why didn't I ever think of using different colors?" She chuckled embarrassedly, "Feel like such a dork..."
"You're not a dork," he said, shaking his head, "If you're a dork for that, I'm a dork for not thinking of how to get out of your headlock."
She giggled, resting her chin on her fist. "See," she said looking at him sweetly, "I told you you'd be a good friend."
He looked away nervously.
"Anyway, let's get outta here."
She stood up and readied to shoulder her backpack, "I wanna see the park," she said.
His face and posture became hesitant, "Oh...all right..."
Her eyes softened and she sat back down. "I thought so."
"Your comfort circle is kinda small isn't it?"
"I... What's a 'comfort circle'?"
"It's an expression, for how comfortable you are doing something. I bet you like going to the park by yourself, but going with me probably makes you feel a bit nervous, huh?"
He crossed his arms and his face, "I'm not nervous!"
"Shh, it's a library."
Anger? Embarrassment? She couldn't tell.
"It's 'kay. I understand. There are things I'm uncomfortable doing too. Like, I love to sing, but you'll never hear me, cuz other people being around makes me nervous." She leaned forward, resting on her arms and chin on her backpack. "Is there any place you'd rather like to go? Or just stay here?"
He looked down at his backpack, and then reached for it. "Nah. Let's... go to the park."
It was her turn to be a little hesitant. "Will you be uncomfortable?"
He paused, and then slung the pack over his shoulders. "Maybe a little. But I doubt we'll see anyone from school there."
Now I see.
"Don't want anyone finding out and teasing you, huh? 'Ket's got a girl-friend!'"
He led the way out the door. They opened with a gentle hiss. "No," he replied, "I don't want them teasing you." He turned back to see her staring blankly. "C'mon," he said, rolling his shoulder, "let's go."
* * *
Midmorning Saturdays were dreamlands this time of year; the kind of weather and atmosphere only heard about in stories. The sun was hidden behind a quilt of pillow-clouds. The air about was very misty, and made the grass feel and smell like the sprinklers had just shut off. A gentle breeze stirred the air, but only strong enough to lift a feather and make it dance in circles for a few moments. Bees whizzed by, sending shocks of flight-adrenaline and raised hackles. Trees waved all about like good neighbors saying, "Hello!"
Emeral followed Ket across the sidewalk at a brisk pace. He was a very good leader, she thought.
He would look back every so often, ask if she needed to stop to catch her breath. He even offered to carry her backpack when she had to pause to get a rock out of her shoe.
She was undecided for a moment, trying to figure out if this was an attempt at being a friend or if this is something he was already familiar with. In the end she declined.
It wasn't a long walk to the park distance-wise, but there were a couple intersections between it and the library that could sometimes last forever. But they had made good time; they were at the better end of a twenty minute walk instead of thirty minutes.
The park appeared very meekly, despite its adequate size. It had a baseball field, which also served as a soccer field, and there was a basketball-and-tennis court combo as well. There was a smaller, open basketball court where the middle- and high-schoolers would often play. Not with each other, of course. Not even a freshmen would be caught dead with an eighth-grader unless they were related by curse.
But all of these commodities were in the more developed part of the park. The rest was trees and walking trails, and there was a playground near the open court for little kids. There were even some lost trails, forgotten and untended for too long.
That is where Ket wanted to go, and that is where Emeral wanted to follow. She was thankful she wore zip-offs, which most girls her age didn't wear. But then, she figured they might get into the brush, so she wanted to stay protected but comfortable. She followed him into the trees without any question.
"I know a cool place," he said, "but it's hidden. You sure you wanna go?"
She smiled and nodded. "Long as you're there."
His eyes shifted. "Watch out for creepy-crawlies," he said, and continued on.
She tried to think of what secret-secret place it was. Maybe it was his secret-agent alien headquarters. A place full of chrome metal and flashing lights, invisible to the naked eye by light-bending technology. Or maybe it was the entrance to another world, where he went on tons of adventures, and then came back to sleep in class until his next endeavor.
But alas, there was little mysticism to be found when the trees broke away into a large clearing.
The old playground appeared before them like an ancient ruin from hundreds of years ago. Some parts were completely captured by rust and vines, while others were warped and broken. A swing set was present, with one swing and then a single chain, also covered in rust, and spider webs no less. The swirling slide had the appearance of, or perhaps actually had, stagnated rainwater.
He dropped his backpack off at a tic-tac-toe stand which was more like a tic-toe stand, as some of the -tac- was missing in the middle.
She did the same, noticing a few fleeing beetles.
They walked together to one of the few good spots on the main body of the playground, if one ignored the spider-web surrounding the green-speckled corkscrew.
She hopped up onto the platform to the monkey-bars. She looked about, as if noticing the place for the first time. "It's nice," she said genuinely.
He rolled his eyes. "What planet are you from?"
I'm from Earth, what about you?
She just smiled.
He kicked an unrecognizable soda-can. "Place is a dump."
"Well...yeah but...it has flowers..." She pointed to some yellow buds.
"I dunno what those are, but they're not flowers." He kicked more trash around, clearing space.
"Well...I guess...you're right," she finally admitted. "I mean, it's a good thing we're starting out as friends, cuz this would be a horrible first date."
"You wanted to get to know me didn't you?" He spread his arms up."This is where I like to hang out on good days."
She pointed up at the bars overhead, where a few were curiously absent of rust. "Do you just do chin-ups all day?"
He stepped underneath the bars and looked at them for a second, and then leapt up into the air, catching them with a soft, metallic schink. He swung to and fro, appearing a little bored. At last he lifted himself up in between the bars, and rested on them like one would rest on a low brick wall. "So...about the comfort circle?"
Apparently he didn't get the hint. Or he was reluctant to show off. "Mmhmm?" She replied rhetorically, feet swinging in alternation.
"How do I...um...make mine bigger?" He asked, unsure of how to describe his thought.
She pulled her legs up to sit indian-style, so she could see his face unabstructed by the bars. "How many chin-ups can you do?"
"They're called pull-ups, and what does that have to do wi—"
"Pull-ups are diapers, and I'm going somewhere with it so just humor me. How many can you do? You did fifteen on the playground at school."
He thought for a second. "I can do twenty but I get kinda tired," he answered.
"You're full of it," she mocked, folding her arms up. "Prove it."
"Fine," he said leaning back as if readying to drop, "but answer my question first. How do I make my comfort circle bigger?"
"Fair enough. Think of it like this: you say you can do twenty 'pull-ups', but you couldn't always do that many in one go, right?"
"No. When I started I could only do three."
When did you start? She wanted to ask, but held her tongue. "Well, expanding your circle is the same way as how you do more pull-ups. You go as close to the edge as you can go," she gestured in the air, drawing a circle and moving her pointer finger to the imaginary edge, "and then stop. And then, keep doing that until where you stop isn't so uncomfortable." Her hands fell onto her lap. "Does that make sense?"
"I guess so. But...does it expand really fast or really slow?"
She looked down at her fidgeting fingers, then back up at him. "Well...that really depends on you." She tilted her head to the side, "Now do some pull-ups already!"
He rolled his head with a sigh and dropped abruptly, swinging to and fro once more. "Why do you want me do to pull-ups so bad anyway?"
She bit her lip, cheeks beginning to warm. "I... I-It's uh... kinda part of me liking you," she admitted softly.
He stared for a few seconds, "Why, exactly?" He began pumping his arms.
He paused to ask, "Why do you like me?" Three more reps passed before she finally answered.
He paused, and smirked. When she became defensive and questioned it he started up again, "You don't have a clue," he said sort of smugly.
"I do, too," she folded her arms, "I just don't wanna tell you. Why?" She asked for him, "because... I wanna make sure I'm right about you."
"Six." He said flatly, as if to change the subject.
"Gotta do at least twenty," she said, "Bonus points if you can do more!"
"There's a point-system?"
"Less talking more pully-uppying."
She watched as he rose and fell, sweat building up on her forehead from just imagining the work. She looked at his forearms, could see every sinew bulging beneath. It hadn't been long before the sleeves fell, revealing his triceps.
His biceps were popped, looking like small russet potatoes to her. His muscle impressed, but not nearly as much as his posture. Most of the kids at school would wiggle and kick their feet to try and get leverage and momentum, but his were perfectly even and still, clasped around his tail. He wasn't doing them nearly as fast like he had during recess, nor was he going to his chest, but he was still as mechanical as he had been that day.
"C'mon, one more," she cheered, his fatigue palpable. She watched giddily as he rose, his last ones not quite as high as he started out, and then her heart skipped as he abruptly let go of the bars and fell to the ground with a heave. "Holy cow!" She leapt off of the platform and came to his side as he got up, his arms trembling. "Are you okay? Jeez! You didn't tell me you'd get that tired!"
"I did twenty didn't I?" He grumbled, his arms slack and rubbery.
For a few moments, she gently squeezed his arms as he recovered, a pang of guilt suddenly creeping into her stomach. She leaned back against the platform's leg as he stood and flapped his arms loosely, like two lengths of rubber hose.
He turned around, shuffled his feet into the grass, and then leapt up onto the bars again.
"What the heck are you doing?" She asked, "If you do any more your arms'll fall off!"
"Relax, I'm fine," he replied, his feet curling up and hooking onto the bar in front of him. He got the bar into the crooks of his knees, and then let his hands go, dropping down.
She closed her eyes and sighed. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Didn't you just?"
"Didn't I just...what?" She opened her eyes to see an upside-down grin crack on his face. "Oh hurr I get it now." She folded her arms, "You pretend to be the cute quiet boy, but you're really just a smart-allic." She stuck her tongue out.
His grin faded. "Do I really have to be 'cute'?"
The corner of her mouth rose in a half-smile. "Get used to it. If you don't, we're gonna have serious problems when we 'upgrade.'"
"What'd you wanna ask?" He said quickly.
Her lips pursed for a second. "Two weeks and I see you out on the playground maybe twice, and you're never anywhere near Ritzer. Then one day you show up, and get right in the middle of his entire gang. What'd you think, 'I wanna get pummeled today'?"
Ket tucked the front of his shirt into his waistband and started curling. "No. I knew he would."
She shook her head, hands rising by her shoulders. "Then...why?" She asked frankly.
"Because," he said between reps, "If I hadn't, things would have been even worse." He paused, head dangling from side to side a bit like a pendulum, "It's... letting Ritzer be a bully when I want him to. On my terms, not his."
"Kinda smart." She replied, and bit her lip as she saw his shirt begin to fall.
He tried to hold it up, but failed. His nearly-white underbelly exposed itself.
She could see small grooves between his abs, and even his right peck... But, something else took over her attention. "Hey!" She shouted, hopping off and steadying his gentle sway. "Who said you could take the band-aids off?"
He slithered upwards and let his feet come loose, and then dropped to the ground. "I'm fine, they're healing." He said.
She lifted his shirt, which made him step back. She stepped forward. "At least you had the sense to keep the one Ritzer pestered on," she muttered, pulling his shirt down with overall disapproval.
"Well yeah, that one still hurts." He noticed her look down sadly, one arm holding the other. "Hey," he said, resting a hand on her shoulder, "It's not your fault. Buttons was scared."
"Stupid cat. I try to be nice to him," She pursed her lips, "But he doesn't like me, so I accidentally chased him and he went up the tree..."
Ket squinted an eye. "How do you 'accidentally'—"
"Listen," she interrupted, "we should just get started..."