“Ung....” My eyes opened to a black ceiling. Around me, moonlight faintly illuminated the usual forms: the lined up beds, the chipped and stained walls, the myriad of windows against the wooded backdrop. I threw my legs over the side of the bed and sat there for a few moments, light-headed and heavy-lidded.
The first thing I always did when I woke up, especially when I woke up in the middle of the night, was check Joseph's bed. The sight of his sleeping form gave me all I needed to force myself up, to get my feet moving one step at a time through the darkness, even on the blackest of nights.
“Huh...?” I got to my feet and squinted at his bed, too overwhelmed by the darkness to move. I stood there for several moments, struggling to discern what looked off about the cloudy picture of his bed hidden in the darkness, until I realized his blanket had been pulled back, moonlight shone directly on the mattress, in the center, right where Joseph should have been.
Maybe he went to the bathroom.... I thought. After all, that's why I'm up.
I balled my hands and began turning toward the hallway that connected the Bunker to the hallway. In the corner of my eye, I caught the sight of the window closest to Joseph's bed.
It was open.
I turned slowly back toward it, my heart beginning to pump nervous blood through my veins.
Please tell me he didn't....
I sighed and squirmed around a bit in agitation. It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. Possibly even lower than the last.
...He did, didn't he?
I stared at the window for a few more uncomfortable moments and sighed again.
I approached it, one deliberate step at a time. As I got closer, I began to smell the pine of the trees outside and felt the chilly air flow against my fur. I took a deep breath. As spooky as it all was, the air outside was fresher than the air inside--more natural, and sweeter too, devoid of the compressed bodily odor and heavily breathing, heavily sweating males piled into the room.
I found the outside of West-End at night to be the only thing scarier than the inside of West-End at night, but I still took a moment to appreciate the natural light of the moon and the way it lit everything up so one could see all the way to the woods. I stuck my head out the window and looked around, confirming that outside, lit up or not, was just horrifying as I'd suspected.
Every corner and every bush and every dark spot concealed that terrible specter known as the unknown.
I glanced at the door frame to the Bunker. I'd spent a fair amount of time in bed, half-wake, and I'd spent a fair amount of time dallying around, trying to will myself to move through the darkness, and in all this time, nobody had risen or entered the room. If Joseph had gone to the bathroom, he'd have already returned.
I grimaced and rested my hands on the cold window sill. I guess I don't have a choice....
Maybe it was the exhaustion. Maybe it was the persistent gnawing for food that never left my belly. Maybe it was just a truly authentic and rather immediate concern for Joseph. Maybe it was all of the above. Whatever the reason, I crawled out of the window and landed in the thick grass that surrounded the orphanage.
I stood there for several fearful moments, looking all around, feeling suddenly a million times more exposed. I knew that whatever motivations had managed to drive me outside would only drive me so far.
I put my hand on the wall and trudged through the tall grass—so tall that the untrodden parts towered over me. I listened closely, but heard only crickets and frogs and the occasional rustle of leaves from what I imagined were small, crawling things. I heard a rustle and flinched all over, and then waited in absolute stillness for several moments. This happened several times, and each time, I waited for my heart to return to a somewhat normal pace before I resumed walking again.
I followed the usual path of flattened weeds around this seldom visited portion of West-End, dragging my hand against the wall as I moved. However, I knew the path ended soon, a thought which worried me just as much as it relieved me.
I rounded the corner and trudged as far I could, but the grass and vines and weeds and all other manner of frustrating green things grew thicker with every step. Within a few moments, I reached what looked like a false wall of weeds and vines, all growing in a dense web that would take no small effort to pass. If I went around, I'd have to force my way through untrod grass, and not only was that dangerous, but exceptionally difficult for someone as small as I was.
It seemed like such a waste to just turn around after all that effort, but how could Joseph had gotten over there? Had he gone the other way when he came out the window? Had he gone straight into the woods?
Maybe I shouldn't have come out here at all.... I thought. Maybe he really isn't out here and he is sick or something and he opened the window because he wanted some fresh air. Or... could he have been kidnapped? No. That's impossible.... Right? There isn't any way that... that someone actually opened the window from the outside... from out here... where I am right now....
And then, from some unseen location, there was a sharp, bodily noise, something like a snort, that cut through the silence and ended my thoughts. My body froze and my heart pounded against my chest like it were trying to free itself from my doomed frame. My tail shook lightly at the tip. I held my breath and did the only thing I could: I listened. I listened and I hoped and I prayed.
I heard the noise again a few moments later, and realized that it was not a snort, but a sniffle. A very human sounding sniffle.
A snort I could chalk up to a boar or some other terrifying creature of the night, to a creature that needs no name nor introduction nor even sense—to that wretched thing called unknown. But a sniffle? What sniffles before murdering you savagely?
And then I heard it again, followed by a brief ruffling of leaves and twigs.
Driven now by a suspicion, I moved forward, tearing the vines out of my way with my claws. I soon realized, with some ducking and clever maneuvering, that I could pass this brush patch and navigate through the rest fairly easily. The moment I passed the dense area, I came to an abrupt stop.
Curled up in the grass, about ten feet up ahead, was a black figure.
“You destroyed my vine wall.” The figure spoke. “You could have just crawled under it. There was a hole, yeah?”
I flinched with surprise. “O-Oh, sorry.”
He snorted. This time a real snort. “It's fine. Not like I built it, yeah?” He turned away from me.
“Yeah....”I looked back at the vine wall for a moment, before turning to face Joseph. “What are you doing out here?”
“I can see that.” I'd hoped this would prompt him to elaborate, but he remained silent. I approached.
“How come you're out here, yeah?” He asked. “Shouldn't you be asleep?”
“I woke up to pee.”
“Shoulda figured.” He paused for a few moments, and then continued. “Go back inside and get some sleep. I'll be okay out here.” His leg started to bounce up and down and I saw his tail flick around a bit, like it were shooing me away.
He turned toward me. “No?”
“No. I'm not just gonna leave you out here like this. You won't even tell me why you're out here in the first place.”
He slowly turned away. I took a seat next to him, my hips pressing against his as I sat down. He pushed himself away, but he couldn't get far, as the thick patch of grass he was leaning against pushed back.
“Why are you out here?” I pressed.
“Because I wanted some fresh air.”
“That couldn't wait until morning?”
“No.” He sniffed again.
I stared at him for a few silent seconds. “...Have you been crying?”
“-No!” He barked back. “I don't cry, yeah? I-It's just... allergies.”
“Alright, alright....” I frowned.
He snorted again, this time with some venom. Several minutes of silence passed. He stared off into the darkness. I followed the path of his eyes, but all I saw were billows of grass and weeds bending in the wind. I took a deep breath and took in the scent of pine.
“It's nice out here.” I said.
“Yeah, see, I told ya.” He sniffed again, rubbing his nose aggressively, as if to punish it for being an accomplice to his shame.
“Should'a trusted you. It's kinda cold, though.”
“You get used to it after awhile. Like, not just out here, but in general, yeah?”
“...What do you mean?”
“Numbness. You get numb after awhile. Like all the time. Most of the time, yeah?”
“Yeah, after awhile it's like you don't even feel it, yeah?” He sighed softly. A moment later, he continued. “T-There's other stuff, too, though. You get numb to everything, yeah? To all the bad feelings.”
“To the bad feelings...?” I pursed my brow and looked down. I wanted to ask him what he meant, and maybe he expected me too, but somehow I felt like I already knew. “Do you get numb to all of them?” I asked instead.
“Yeah.” He answered solemnly. “I think so.”
“...What about hunger? Do you get numb to the hunger...? Cause I'm really tired of being hungry all the time.” I put my hands on my stomach. “I'm really tired of being hungry.”
“I am too. Sometimes, that's the worst part. Going to bed and the only thing you can think about is that pain, hoping that you fall asleep so you can at least have a few hours where you don't have to think about it—and then you go and dream about it, yeah? But sometimes, yes, you even forget about the hunger. That's how it all goes, yeah? You learn to forget about it, yeah? It's all you can do. Forget. The more you forget, the better off you are.”
“...That's depressing to think about.” My frown deepened. “Don't things ever get better?”
He snorted again, this time louder. “You realize they've been cutting our food rations to fund the war, right? We're getting less food and less food everyday, yeah? You're just new here so you haven't had a chance to notice it.”
“B-But.... Why? Why would they do that? They barely feed us enough as it is....”
His tone grew harsh. “Isn't it obvious?
“Is what obvious...?”
“They don't care about us, Leo. They don't care at all.”
“-No buts. If they cared about us, it's only because they care enough to hate us, yeah? Just look at how they act around us. How they treat us. How they blame us for things. It's like putting a log in a fire and blaming it for getting all burnt up. They're all a bunch of bastards and idiots!” He tail smacked against the wall of West-End, hard enough to make him flinch with pain.
“But... that... can't be true.”
“Oh? And why is that? Why would they care about us, yeah? What do we do for them? We eat the food they give us and crap it out and then go to town and steal from their stalls and beat up their spoiled little kids.” His tail smacked against the side of West-End again, thumping loudly. “They hate us. And we hate them.”
“But we don't do any of those things! I've never even been to town and I've never seen you go there. Plus you'd never beat-”
“-I know that.” He hissed. “Do you think it matters? Do you really think it matters at all? Cause it doesn't, yeah? We're orphans. Orphans, and that is what orphans do, yeah? All of 'em. They don't succeed or change or get money; they just rot away and die and help fertilize the ground. The only thing we can ever hope to be are thieves and bastards and dead and the best of us, the best of us, they're lucky if they get to be laborers. We're not supposed to succeed, Leo. It isn't meant for us, yeah? We are supposed to die. We're supposed to die. That's what this is about. That's what this place is. I wish you'd just open your eyes and get it already.” He crossed his arms and leaned back into the vines. His body was half-turned toward me now.
“But that... that doesn't make any sense! So you're telling me they keep us alive so we'll turn into thieves and die? That they hate all of us just because we're orphans? I'm sure there are some like that, people like Daughtry maybe, who don't care us and who don't seem care about anybody but themselves...” --he sneered at the mention of Daughtry's name--”but I refuse to believe that nobody cares about us. What about the pious? The worshipers of Gaol? They have to love us to do Gaol's will, don't they? That's what they do. It's their life.”
“Gaol is a lie.”
My eyes widened and air rushed into my lungs. “Wh-What?”
He turned to face me. “Gaol. Is. A lie.”
We sat in silence for a few moments. He sighed heavily and uncurled himself. He sat crossed-legged, nearly touching me. “Sorry. I went too far. I don't know why I said all that, yeah?”
“So you're.... heathen?”
His head was turned back toward the woods. His eyes looked out into the blackness, his eye lids tight and low. ”Yeah. I'm heathen.”
All this time, I thought. I heard him mention Gaol before. Never religiously, but I heard him mention him... and all this time, he didn't actually believe. He doesn't believe.
Joseph is heathen.
“Do you hate me now?” He asked suddenly.
“Do you hate me now? For being heathen, yeah? You still believe in Gaol, yeah? So do you hate me? Do you hate me for saying all those things?”
“No! Of course not-”
“-I wouldn't blame you if you did. I deserve it. I really, truly deserve it. I wouldn't blame you at all, yeah?--Be honest.”
“Wait, wait, why do you deserve it? Why should I suddenly hate you?”
He remained silent, his head now hung, his eyes aimed at his own waist. I could partially make out the sight of his eyes, which were barely open.
“I don't hate you, Joseph. I... I'm just surprised. And a little impressed.”
He turned to face me. “You're impressed?”
“Yes. I didn't know heathens could be so... nice. I'd always been taught to think they were misguided and evil and dangerous, but you're... you're not any of those things.”
I looked up to meet his eyes, and found them staring back at me, determined, eyebrows furled forward. The question had been asked with the utmost seriousness.
“No....” I nearly whispered. “Of... of course not. Why would you think that?”
“I just don't get it. How can you believe in Gaol, then? If I'm not bad, then why does the world treat me like I am, yeah? If I'm good, and there is a Gaol... then why am I being punished like this?”
“What do you mean... punished?”
“I don't know what else to call it.”
“To call what...?” I pressed.
“This, yeah? Life. I don't know what else... I could see it as. I'm hungry all day, everyday. Every single day without exception and I am so sick of it I can't even put it into words, yeah? I hate this hunger so much, so much, so much, so much. And it just makes me even madder to think that people like Blon and that stupid, ugly, freak Ant get food in town for being stupid ugly freaks and making all of us look like monsters. I'm treated like shit by everyone in this stupid place and if I get hurt I have to take care of myself. Myself. No one else cares. Nobody cares about me at all. Never. Nobody gives a shit about me beyond wanting me to just go and, and, d-die in t-the woods...” He went suddenly silent, and after about ten seconds, he swallowed and took a deep breath. “...What else am I supposed to think it is, yeah? How I am supposed to survive thinking this is just life? This has to be punishment. It has to be. It just has to be. I pray every night to Gaol or to any god that'll listen, even though I don't believe in any of 'em. Because it has to be, yeah? It has to be the worst. This has to be just about as bad as it gets, cause if its not....” He sighed, sounding suddenly exhausted. “But deep down... I know it isn't true. I know there isn't a Gaol, and I know there isn't any... divine punishment. I know there is no hope or justice or real love in this awful, awful place. Just monsters pointing fingers at other monsters, yeah? I know that at least. I know that if I'm a monster, then I'm not the only one, yeah? They don't get to punish me like this. Treat me like this. Never even give me a chance and then on top of that, on top of all of that, they don't get to, to, call me a monster, yeah?” He paused again and took a deep breath. “...Not without being one themselves. If I'm a monster, just born one, just made one just because I got no other choice; then what does that make them, yeah? What are they? All of 'em. Every single one. The ones here, the ones in town, the ones all over the world who don't care, yeah? The ones who exploit and torture and pass on their riches and oppress us all, yeah? The argents and the politicians and the, the, what did you call them? The evil? How many people out there do you think are good, Leo? Do you think-”
He turned to face me for the first time in his diatribe and went silent.
“A-Are you....” He leaned in a bit. “Are you crying?”
“O-Oh crap. Crap. Crap. I-I didn't mean to... I was just... Oh, crap, I don't know what I was doing. I don't know why I said all that. I'm sorry, yeah? Please, please don't cry.” He reached toward me, but stopped before making contact.
“It's okay.” I said, sniffling. “You can keep going if you want. I can take it.”
“No, no. No more. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you like that, yeah? I promise things are going to be better for you, alright? You won't have things like I did. I'll make sure things aren't quite as.... No. No, I'll make sure they're good. I promise. I'll make sure you have a good life, a great life. I pro-”
“-I'm not crying because of that.”
“I'm not crying because I'm worried about how my life is gonna be, I'm crying cause of how awful your life has been.” I sniffed. “Because of how awful life can be for everybody. Cause of you and all the people like you. People who feel like they're being... punished.”
“I'm the one who's sorry. I know it... doesn't help. B-But it's all I can say.”
“You're crying... because of people like me? Because of... me?” He squinted at me and spoke as if he were completely mystified. As if I were the very picture of two opposite forces working in tandem.
“Y-Yes.” I sniffed again and rubbed my eyes. “W-Why? What's wrong?”
“Oh.” He turned away from me, slowly, leaning back into the wall with a dumbfounded expression on his face.
“Are you okay?”
“Y-Yeah, just.... I don't know. No one has ever... cried for me before.” His voices sounded strained and confused.
“Isn't that normal, though? I care about you.”
“I....” He went silent for several moments and then continued. “Oh.”
“Nothing... Nothing at all. Absolutely nothing.” He spoke clearly now, and held his head up. “Leo, I'm sorry I said all of that, yeah? I shouldn't have. I know all of this crap isn't any easier for you.... You've got it just as bad as I do. Maybe worse.”
“It's okay. I understand.... At least I think I do.” I picked at my claws, suddenly feeling bashful. “I'm glad you're here, though. I... I don't know if I could have survived without you.”
I turned to face him and found him staring straight ahead, out into the wind drawn woods of black and silver, his expression crossed with an uncharacteristic sense of calmness, though with eyes wide and alert.
“Thanks.” He said suddenly. “I'm happy you're here too.”
“I'm glad,” I answered, smiling.
“No, I mean... happier than... I could ever hope to put into words, y-yeah?” He swallowed and sat up, like he'd been bitten by a bug. In his haste, he smacked my side with his tail and offered no apology.
“Anyway,” he continued in his normal tone with normal demeanor. “It's late as hell, yeah? Go in and get some rest.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“I just want a few more minutes to think. Get everything straight in my head. But I'll follow you in in a few minutes, yeah? I gotta straighten it out or I won't be able to sleep.”
“...Okay. You're feeling better now, right?”
“I am feeling much better now.”
I smiled. “Okay.” I stood up and brushed the dirt off my butt and tail. “O-Oh...!” I leaned forward and grimaced.
“What's the matter?”
“I f-forgot to pee....”
“You didn't go before you came looking for me....?” He watched my erratic stepping with a queer expression on his face. He laughed. “I shoulda figured. Go pee and then go to bed.”
“'Kay. Night, Joseph.”
I rushed off, walking with swift steps until I reached the window. My fear for the dark hallways of West-End, and particularly for the abyssal hole they called a bathroom, led me to keep going past it, until I rounded the next corner and reached the front doors. I went past them and tucked myself away around the next corner, not far forward.
I pawed at the slim, black strip of fabric tying my robe closed as my hips swayed back and forth, entirely of their own accord.
With one unending motion, I undid the robe, threw it open, and pulled my shorts out of the way.
I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. “Just in time....”
Then I smelled it. Something stale and gross hanging in the air. And no, it was not that. It was something different. Like dirt in the form of smoke.
The sudden proclamation of my name sent a visible shudder through my body. I twisted around, and leaning against the side of West-End, with a stick of tobacco in his mouth, was Lucky. His eyes rested on me, one of his eyebrows cocked upward in confusion.
“What are you doing out here?” He asked.
“Yeah, I can see that.”
“U-Uh, I'll-I'll j-just be a moment....”
“Yeah.... Take your time.”
“How come y-you're out here?”
“Just havin' a smoke.” He took the tobacco stick from his mouth and held it out in front of his face, his eyes following the flame on the tip.
A few moments later, I managed to stop urinating. I quickly redressed and turned to face him, blushing aggressively.
“You still haven't answered my question. And if you came out here just to pee, why?”
“I... like the fresh air.”
He squinted his eyes at me, at first like he were angry, but his expression softened a moment later. “Really, huh? That just happens to be why I'm out here.”
“Yes, that and to smoke.... You ever smoke, Leo?”
“No, I've never smoked.”
“Here,” he slipped his hand into his pocket but stopped a moment later. “Actually...” He handed me the stick between his fingers. “Inhale a bit of that and tell me how you like it first.”
“O-Oh, um....” I took the tobacco feeling more than a little uncertain. “M-Maybe just a little....”
I brought the stick to my lips with tentative slowness. I took a puff. Lucky's lips curled into a smile the moment he saw my grimace. I started coughing.
“Jeez,” he said with a chuckle. “May be some of the old sunflower, but I've never seen someone take a stick as bad as that.”
“That was awful.” I said into my clutched fist.
He chuckled again and let his eyes close. A moment later, they slid carefully open and looked upward, toward the moon.
“How can you smoke those things?”
“You get used to it. And they work wonders for when you're tight.”
“Oh.” We both stood silent for a few moments. I joined him in looking up at the moon; the moon shined its light back at us. “Are you stressed about something?”
He paused for a moment, and then responded. “...Yeah, I am.”
“What's wrong?” I looked over at him and saw his face in the light. It looked more somber than I'd ever seen it. It was crossed with a sternness, too—sternness and aloofity. And I think, beyond all of that, there was something more, some kind of deep sadness; the sort I often saw in Joseph's eyes when he looked off into the distance.
He smiled. “...I can't say.”
“It's...” His smile turned into a frown. “It's complicated. Don't worry about it.”
“Not something I would understand?”
“...It's not that. I think you'd understand, Leo. That's kinda the sick part; you'd probably understand better'n anyone else at this awful place.”
“Yeah. Y'know, you don't give yourself enough credit. You got some brains in there yet.”
“Oh! U-Um, thanks.”
He snorted again. “And modest too. Of course he has to be modest too.”
I stayed quiet, feeling a strong urge to ask what was wrong, but not wanting to ask him the same question over again.
“I hate this place,” he said suddenly. “It just aint right here. This just aint right.”
“What's not right?”
“None'uh this. Not a damn bit of it.” He laughed loud enough and suddenly enough to startle me. “Look at me, talkin' 'bout what's right. Like it makes a damn difference any way or another.”
“...But 'what's right' matters a lot.”
He looked at me with surprise. “Damn,” he shook his head. “You're a smart kid. Maybe a little too smart. Or then again, maybe it's the complete opposite of that. But maybe it's better this way. Maybe it'll be better if you are the way you are.”
“It's nothin, you lil' bastard. Nothing but position stuff I assure you.”
We stayed silent for a bit longer.
“There just isn't anything else. There's no other choice.” He began suddenly. He saw me look at him with confusion, and he continued on. “I mean all this. All this shit. There aint a choice about any of it. We just... do what we have to do. I didn't choose it, you know? All this shit. All of it.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You know, huh?”
“Yeah, I-I... think so. I know a bit.”
He snorted. “Yeah, I guess you do know a bit. At least a little. Blon made damn sure of that, like he always does. Stupid spoiled shit.”
Lucky laughed when he saw the look of shock on my face.
“Yeah, I said it. Don't repeat it to him if you wouldn't mind,” he leaned in a bit, “that's not too good for business, my lil' friend.”
“Y-Yeah,” I smiled softly. “I-I won't say anything.”
“Good boy.” He leaned back against the wall and averted his eyes toward the moon. He sighed heavily.
I spent the next few moments reflecting on those words: 'good boy.' It seemed like an embarrassing, demeaning thing to say, like he'd put me in my place and acknowledged me all at the same time. But if that were true, why did the words make me feel so good?
“You should get some rest.” He began again. “No need to stay up all night with my stupid ass.”
“But I don't wanna just... leave you out here.”
He chuckled again and shook his head. His eyes closed and he looked down at the dirt. His smiled turned to a frown; the features of his face relaxed. For a few moments, he looked truly sorrowful.
And then his lips curled back into a smile. “Don't worry about me, Leo. I aint all that important.”
“That's not true.... I think you're really important. You're one of the only people who talks to me. And you've been really ni-”
“-Leo.” He cut me off and shook his head. “Don't. It won't help. It'll just make it all... so much worse.”
I opened my lips to respond, but no words came out.
“But... thank you for trying. It's nice to have someone try now and then.” His voice got quiet with these last few words. “Go in and get some sleep.”
“I.... Okay. I'm... sorry I couldn't be a better friend.”
He snorted and shook his head again. “Don't worry. You were a good friend. You helped. But sometimes... I just gotta be alone.”
“Okay,” I forced a smile. “Don't stay up too late.”
“You're one to talk.”
I walked away. He looked like he was feigning his expression, to make me think he was in a better mood than he was. Something only somebody who was truly miserable would do.
When I returned inside I went straight to my bed and lied down. The pangs of hunger echoed in my stomach, and I wondered if I'd even be able to fall back asleep.
The moment my head hit the pillow, I drifted into sleep and didn't wake up until morning.
My eyes traversed the page with a ferocity far beyond my ability to actually process words. I ended up reading the same sentences twice, three times, as many times as it took, sometimes still needing to go back and reread paragraphs that I'd already reread about a million times thus far. I just couldn't focus. Today was the day Joseph had promised to take me town.
And by Gaol was I excited.
That morning I'd confirmed it. I'd jaunted up to him, probably looking dumb with happiness, and I'd asked if he still planned on keeping his promise. I'd phrased it more as a command, guiding my tone with a force that told him if he redacted the offer, I'd assault him with guilt. He did confirm it, though, with a frown and a reluctance to look me in the eyes for any length of time—but still, he confirmed it.
“Leo,” he suddenly called out, without looking up at me. “Is there something you'd like to say?”
“N-No.... Why do you ask?”
“'Cause you keep looking down at me, yeah?”
I blushed and quickly looked away from him. “O-Oh! Sorry.... It's just....” I turned to face him again, squirming uncomfortably in the hard wood of my tree reading spot. “When can we go?”
“Soon. Let me finish my training first, yeah?”
“Yeah, but you keep saying 'soon' and it's taking foreeeeeever.”
He looked up at me crookedly. “...It's not even noon yet.”
“B-But, it's the birds, too. They won't leave me alone....”
“Hit them if they get too close. That'll teach 'em real fast like to keep to themselves, yeah?”
“No!” I cried. “I'm not going to hit them. They're birds!”
“So what if they're birds? They kinda have it coming, don't they?”
“How can a bird 'have it coming...?'” I frowned.
“Look. Hit 'em, don't hit 'em, it's all the same to-”
As if lying in wait for the perfect moment, a bird swooped down in front of me, like it were trying to strike my leg with its beak. I swatted the air in front of me, being sure not to swat too close to the weakly built creature, but they required little incentive to fly back up into the higher parts of the trees, where they could squawk and gawk and tease me in safety.
Joseph sighed loudly and returned to striking a tree—doing what he called 'bone training, yeah?'
I stared up into the trees, watching the winged menaces hop around, clearly mocking me in their strange bird language. I growled.
“Stupid birds....” I returned to my book, but things went just as poorly as before. Every time time I lost even a part of myself in the words, a bird would swoop down, sometimes more than one. Sometimes they'd even go up and down a few times, and I'd become more aggressive with the swatting, but they always fled shortly after, always to the tree tops to mock me further.
“Joseph,” I whined. “When can we go?”
He sighed again, this time even louder. “Soon, Leo. Soon.”
I frowned and returned to my book once again. “Gaol,” I muttered, “give me the patience to-OW!”
I whipped my tail upward to hold it in my hands, but the branch blocked all but the tip from reaching me. I shifted positions, pulling my tail from its dangling spot between the two branches which held me in the air.
“Ow, ow, ow!” I rubbed it, tears forming in the corners of my eyes.
“What happened?” Joseph looked up at me. His annoyance was gone, but his voice lacked concern.
“I think a bird pecked my tail!”
His lips curled up in a weird way, and then a moment later, he burst out laughing.
“It's not funny!” My jaw quivered. “Stop laughing!”
“It's pretty funny, yeah?”
“No, it's not! It hurts....”
“'A bird pecked my tail,'” he repeated. “You can't tell me that isn't at least a little funny, yeah?”
I sniffed. “It's not....”
“Aww, come on. Stop crying. It didn't hurt that bad, did it?”
“It did.... And you don't have to laugh about it!”
“Hey, hey, come on, now,” he said, still smiling. “I'm sorry for laughing, yeah? But seriously, it was funny. You should laugh too, yeah? I wasn't making fun of you or anything.”
“I don't want to laugh.” I sniffed again.
He sighed and shook his head. “Alright, alright, get out of the tree, you big baby. I''ll take you to town now.”
“R-Really?” My face brightened. “And I'm not a baby.”
“You totally are, yeah?”
“You are. Anyway, hurry up and get down here. We don't have all day, yeah?”
The fact he was now rushing me had to be the most irritating part of the many irritating things that had happened in the last minute. It didn't matter, though. I couldn't think of one clever or witty thing to say, because the only word that mattered now was the only word still traveling through my head:
I followed Joseph out of the woods, but he took a path I'd never seen before. A path opposite the one that led to the waterfall. I soon discovered this 'path' was really just thick, untrodden brush.
“You've walked-” A renegade twig poked my cheek. I broke it and tossed it to the ground. “You've walked this before, right?”
“Yeah, a couple times. Once or twice, yeah?”
“...You mean since I got to West-End?”
“No, I mean total.” A moment of silence passed. “I don't go to town much, yeah?”
“Yes, I can tell.” I forced my way through a flurry of sticks and greenery that Joseph had practically danced through. The ground still looked untrodden, even though he'd just trodden on it. I frowned, perplexed at how someone could be so nimble.
“Don't worry,” he assured me. “It's a little thick, yeah? But it'll save us some time.”
“Is it worth it...?” I asked, wrestling with a patch of vines that had nearly tripped me. “Wouldn't it be easier to just take the dirt road?”
“It is.” He hopped over a log, like he were bragging about all the energy he had to spare. “Trust me, I'm doing this for you, yeah? We could walk back to West-End and take the road, but that would bring us way out of the way. This way is quicker, since we're already much closer to town than West-End. And trust me, town is a far walk, yeah? That road is made for wagons.”
“But don't a lot of the other kids go to town almost everyday?”
“Yeah, but you get used to it after awhile. You make the walk enough times and you'll forget you're even doing it, yeah?”
His explanation made sense, but that didn't help with the line of thorns that had lodged themselves into my robe.
It took awhile, but we eventually emerged from the woods, on to the one road that connected West-End to the rest of the world. Joseph insisted that the 'short-cut' had been worthwhile, but I continued picking off the small, thorny things that stuck to every bit of fabric and fur they came into contact with. I didn't mind the ones that stuck to my robe so much, but I could have done without the fur ones.
We traversed down the road for some time. A very long some time. At least 20 ems had gone by before I thought to inquire about this 'far walk.'
“Are we almost there?” I asked, the hot sun baring down, feeling as if the hotter my fur got, the heavier it was to carry.
“Yeah, we're like, halfway there, yeah?”
My jaw dropped. “We're... only halfway there?”
“I told you it was a long walk, yeah?”
“Yeah, you said far. You didn't say... this.”
“'This.'” He repeated flatly.
“Ughhhh. We've been walking for almost a lot now; we have to be closer than halfway.”
“I don't know. Maybe we're a little closer. Might... be a little further too, yeah? I'm no map maker.”
I sighed and looked down at my aching thighs. Now I knew why Joseph had been dreading the town visit, and why he'd opted to trudge through the thick, foresty growth, rather than detour to West-End.
“Regret this yet?”
“No,” I answered sternly. “I don't regret this at all. This will be completely worth it.”
His lips curled in a weird way and his eyebrows furled the slightest amount, but he turned back before I had a chance to read his expression properly.
He muttered something under his breath.
“Nothing.” He said. “Just thinking out loud, yeah?”
We continued on, alternating between short spurts of speaking—mostly me complaining—and periods of hot, sweaty, silence. After another 20 or so ems, I spoke again, to ask a question that had been troubling me.
“Joseph, how come this road is so long?”
“...What do you mean?” He sounded slightly annoyed, likely expecting more complaints.
“Why is it so long...? O-Or, how come West-End is so... far away from everything?”
His walk slowed a bit, but resumed its normal pace a moment later. “Because West-End wasn't always an orphanage, yeah? I think they used it for something else awhile back. This area used to be... um... c-c-contes-zid.”
“Yeah, I heard it from Scott once. It means they fought over it, yeah?”
“What did they fight over, though?”
“The land. Like, they fought over the entire southern continent, yeah? The Republic against the Dominion.”
“Uh, what are those?”
Joseph laughed. “You've got a lot to learn, don't cha?” He ignored my frown and continued on. “The Republic is us. We're led by The Lord, or Lord Lam or something. I guess that's all I know about his name. I think the full thing is super long or something, but most people call him 'The Lord,' yeah? And then there is the Dominion, yeah? They are the westerners and they're ran by Augustus something or other. I can't really remember his full name, though; his is even worse than The Lord's.--Why do all these big political types always have big names anyway? Why not just have a normal name.--Anyway, yeah, he runs the Dominion of the Augustus, but that's just what we call it over here, yeah? They claim it is the new Empire of Honorable Knights, knighting in the name of fire, or fire-lu or knights or something. It doesn't really matter what they claim anyway, yeah? We call them the Dominion of the Augustus.”
“Oh. I... guess that makes sense. B-But what's a republic? And a dominion?”
He put a thoughtful finger on his chin. “Hmm. We're a republic, so, just, look around, yeah? What you see is what you get.”
I frowned and glanced at the trees all around us. “What you see is what you-?”
“-And a dominion is.... It's... I think it's like an empire, yeah? Except we call his a dominion because he is a dictator.”
“Yes, it's like a tyrant.”
“Y-Yes, h-he's a... a... just a really bad leader... I guess. I don't really know, yeah? I'm just repeating what I heard from Scott. Anyway, no more politics, yeah? We're almost there.”
'We're almost there' wasn't how I would have described the fifteen ems of walking that remained, but in any case, we did eventually arrive. When the silhouettes of the buildings began to crop up on the horizon, my heart began to race. My toes squirmed restlessly with each step forward and my tail started to flop around like a piece of string in the wind.
Joseph looked back and smiled at me, but he furled his eyebrows at the last moment, and something about his expression struck me as sad.
As we grew closer, I began to see people—yes, actual people. Not just other orphans or the cart-driver that delivers food and supplies to West-End, but actual, associating people.
Upon entering the bounds of town, I took in the sights of the buildings and packed streets and the stalls set up in the distance. I must have looked like an idiot, walking with mouth agape, barely able to keep up with Joseph who had slowed down considerably to let me gawk.
The buildings were not much different from West-End in style, but it was the number of them that I found appalling. House after house, building after building. Even when I'd lived with Mom, we'd lived isolated, on the outskirts of a village that bought supplies from a town like this and resold or traded them to people like us.
I'd gone to the village many times, but I'd never had an opportunity to go to town. I'd always dreamed about just embarking one day, about leaving and seeing where the world took me. Why couldn't I? Why couldn't I just walk there?
But finally, after all that time, here I was. I was in town. A real, live, functioning, moving, breathing town.
“C-Can we go to the market?”
“To the market...?” Joseph asked.
“Yeah, yeah! With the stalls and all the shops! I've always wanted to see a real one!”
So Joseph led me to the market. The bright, bouncy, fun market filled with all the interesting people and all the amazing stalls. Lined with the shops and windows showing off all sorts of amazing merchandise owned by individuals who'd achieved a respectable level of success.
I went from stall to stall at first, doing everything I could to keep at a pace Joseph could catch up to, but when my eyes spotted the bookshelf halfway down the busiest street in town, I moved straight for it, as if propelled by some invisible force.
I stopped at the window and peered inside. It didn't have anything on display like the other shops, but I could see shelves upon shelves, each filled from one end to the other, from top to bottom. The fun, bouncy book store filled with lots of amazing books.
“C-Can we go in?” I asked Joseph, trying to contain my overflowing excitement.
“Uh...” He grimaced and balled his hands into fists. “Yeah. Let's...go inside.”
Without another word I darted for the door. The room stank heavily of old pages and unwiped furniture, a scent strongly reminiscent of West-End. The shopkeeper looked back at me with a crooked brow when I waved to him.
The amount of books appalled me, as I'd never before seen so many in one place. The bookcases were taller than I was, and they reached up to the ceilings, each of them packed full of different books, all of different genres.
My eyes scanned aisles, searching the many spines, each showing me a door to a different world. I reached for one and picked it up. I flipped through the pages and let my eyes scan the back summary.
“Hey,” A gruff voice called from the front of the store. I looked up and found the shop keeper looking back at me. An old man with what looked like a permanent scowl sitting heavily across his lips peeked around and went back and forth between Joseph and I. He spoke deliberately, putting slight bits of emphasis on the more offensive words he spoke: “You yarbage gonna buy something or what? Get on with it, I'm not tryin' to get robbed by some furry little ruffians.”
My smile slipped away as my eyes locked with the shopkeeper's. My muscles tightened with sudden anxiety. I looked over at Joseph in confusion, but his head was down, his eyelids heavy, his eyes aimed toward the floor. Before I could defend myself, still unsure of why I needed defending at all, the man went on, blessing me with the light of insight.
“What are you looking at, yarbage?” He croaked. “You Koshy even got a damn purse? Somethin' to carry all the money that you pickpocket?” He snorted. “Why don't you just get out of here, you little imps, 'for I call the guard?”
Joseph grabbed my wrist (one of the few times he'd ever touched me) and wordlessly led me to the door. He positioned himself behind me and gently pushed me out, following close behind. I followed his lead, doing my best to walk the way he directed me, though confusion, mystification, and a series of other similar emotions all left me feeling disheveled, like my entire mind were a giant spot of uncombed fur. Suddenly, in this fun, bouncy wonderland of amazing things, everything felt wrong, and I suddenly felt very homesick and scared.
“The balls on these two!” The man barked, suddenly sounding a lot angrier. “A couple of Koshy's walking around like freedom grows in a wasteland. Go back to your own little hole and put on some shackles little Koshy and stop comin' here and stealin' from the good brothers and sisters that-” The door closed behind us. Thankfully, the man seemed content being his own audience and did not follow behind.
Joseph led me a bit away from the store. As we walked, I threw some furtive glances back, almost as if I expected something insightful to be waiting by the bookshop door, but all I found were more people rushing to and fro, a suspicious amount of them throwing their own furtive glances in our direction.
We pulled into a small alley just outside of the market street. Joseph stood next to me against a wall, staring straight ahead. His chest heaved more than it should have after a few moments of heated steps, and his ears sat flattened.
“I'm sorry,” he began. “I'm sorry you had to see that... yeah?”
“Wh-Wh-What h-happened? W-Why did he... say that? What did I do?”
“You did the one thing you weren't supposed to do.” He looked down at me. “Exist.”
I cocked my head to the side, and Joseph grimaced, as if something had suddenly brought him great discomfort.
“E-Exist?” I asked.
“Yes. He... didn't think we had any money. Thought we were just in there to look around. Thought we were loitering, or were maybe gonna steal from him.... So he kicked us out, yeah?”
“But I... I thought it was okay to look inside of stores...? I d-didn't... I didn't-!”
“-No, no, Leo, Leo, it's not your fault. Please, please don't cry. Not now. Not here.” He looked past me, out into the street. “You're allowed to look in shops. Um, not... you, I mean, not us, yeah? But most people. It's usually okay....”
“Then why couldn't we?”
“B-Because... we're Fen, yeah? And because we're orphans, too. He thought we were gonna steal from him, 'cause that's what orphans do—and I know, I know, not us, but it's what people like Blon and Ant do, and plenty of worse stuff than that—and he also thought it 'cause we're Fen. And... apparently that's what we do.” Joseph looked away from me, his expression a mixture of sadness and bitterness. “Or so they say, yeah?”
“So he kicked us out because we're... poor orphans, and... because we're Fen?”
“Yes. You heard what he said, yeah? Do we have any money? Anything to even carry our money in? He called us Koshy, yeah? Koshy.” He repeated with bitterness.
“Koshy is a mean word for Fen, yeah? I'm surprised you haven't heard it from Blon, but... um... I guess he's been trying out some new ones lately.”
“Koshy... So... we're Koshy?”
“No!” He hit the wall with the side of his fist. “We are not! Never say that! Never ever say that!”
“S-Sorry! I'm sorry!” I jumped backwards, terrified.
He pulled back with a look of surprise. “Sorry.... I... I didn't mean....” He paused and stared blankly at the ground for a few moments. He turned around and began pacing back and forth. “You're right, though.” He went on, as if his outburst had never happened. “They call us that, but... we're not actually... that, yeah?”
“...What about the rest of town? Is it... just the market? Because of the theft? Or is it everywhere?”
“The market is the worst, yeah?” He continued to pace. “They hate it when we go to the market. It's best we do it quick if we ever need something, yeah? But the rest of town is about just as hostile. You can get away with some of the poorer areas, since some Fen live there, but then you gotta deal with...other things.”
“Yes, there is violence there, yeah? Imagine that shopkeeper except poor and angry. Eh, angrier. And some of the violence isn't just the Fair, but there are Fen there that will hurt you too. Rob and steal from you. Sometimes even canines, yeah? But they're rare. But it can be dangerous there. It's just West-End when you get too old to be at West-End—or it's where you go when you get fed up and leave.”
I stared down at the brick alleyway, my stomach lurching with nausea. Fun, bouncy, nausea.
“I guess...” Joseph continued. “I guess most of town isn't that bad. The market is the worst place for us, and then the poor area is the worst for... pretty much everyone, yeah? But the rest is usually just staring. Sometimes people will try to start something with you or call you names, especially if you're free, but you can normally avoid it by ignoring them, yeah?”
“...Free? You mean...?”
“Yeah,” he replied sullenly. “Yeah. You didn't see any? Any of the slaves?”
I thought back on the question. “N-No, I... I didn't see any Fen at all.”
“There aren't a lot of them. Most of the free ones have left for the Central Republic where there are more jobs, or they went up north to work the plains. Most of the ones left are slaves, y-yeah?”
We stood there in silence for a few moments. Joseph had paused his pacing to answer the questions about the slaves, but started walking again after falling silent.
“...Should we just go then?” My voice wavered as I spoke.
“We could walk around a little more if you want. Through the less busy parts of the town, with the dirt roads mainly. There isn't much to see and there is a lot of staring, but...”
“No... No, it's okay. I think I'd rather just... leave.” This statement was as honest as it was a lie. I had little desire to see anymore fun, bouncy townsfolk or their racist shops and enslaved peoples, but that fact didn't make the idea of returning to West-End any more palpable. In fact, thinking about it only worsened my nausea.
“Okay,” he answered. “That's probably for the best, yeah?” I was staring at the ground, tears in my eyes, but I could feel Joseph watching me. We stood like this for several moments, long enough for it to feel awkward and sudden when he spoke again.
“I'm sorry,” he said, nearly whispering. “This is my fault.”
“I-It's not your fault.” I looked up and wiped the tears from my eyes. “You can't control-”
“-No.... Don't.” He closed his eyes and turned away. “I'm sorry. Let's just go, y-yeah?”
Suddenly, he sounded as if he wanted to cry, too. Why his grief peaked now of all times was beyond me, but I had learned awhile ago that trying to understand Joseph was about the only thing more difficult than trying to get him to remove his shirt.
He led the way out of the alley and then toward the exit of town. Just as before—though only now did I notice the eyes turned to meet us, most of them glaring, making little effort to hide their disgust.
I kept my head down and looked up only when I had to. Most of the time I kept my eyes on his feet, following grimly behind. At one point, however, my head rose, and my eyes caught something dark and furry a bit up in front of us.
The moment my eyes connected with his malnourished, half-naked body, I found myself unable to look away. He stood behind a man in an expensive suit—dark red, trimmed white, covered in as many gold colored buttons and pins and ornamentations as space would allow—who seemed to be performing some kind of negotiation with a shop owner.
The half-naked Fen's muscles had a certain tightness too them. A sort of strength and struggling desire to grow, yet a size and meekness that betrayed this man's poor health. The strange, unnatural leanness of his curves made me sick.
I met his eyes and found them squinted, lifeless, and bloodshot, staring straight ahead. His eyelids were heavy. Black bags sat puffy and red underneath his eyes, visible despite the thinning black and white fur that covered him.
He turned his head to face us and locked eyes with me. His expression did not change, nor did he struggle to utter a word. He showed no sign of wanting to move, beyond the minor motion of turning his head, and he conveyed no jealousy, though I highly suspected he felt it.
He kept his weary eyes locked with mine, and I lacked the courage to look away from his troubling, leering visage. As we passed, his eyes traveled down my body and stopped at my tail. My fear had been so great that my tail had curled into the submissive position--pulled back in the shape of a half circle, extending down between my legs. It shook lightly at the tip.
Normally, this was an embarrassing pose for a Fen to assume, but in the moment, it felt appropriate. I didn't know why the thought occurred to me, but I wondered if seeing me like that, seeing me so shocked, shocked by something that didn't seem to be rare or unusual to anybody else around, if seeing my reaction had brought him some kind of peace or pleasure. I wondered if it was a good thing to feel pleasure from another person's discomfort. If it was a good thing to suffer displeasure for another person's relief.
I sniffed, and Joseph looked back.
“Are you crying?”
I nodded, my jaw quivering as I struggled to hold back impending sobs.
His mouth opened, I imagine to ask me why, but he looked past me and his jaw closed a second later. He turned back around, an empty expression on his face, a solemnity hidden in the nuances. He grabbed my wrist again as we walked.
Feeling Joseph hold my hand—or, at the very least, my wrist—brought me more peace than I can hope to ever translate to words. It's only when you've been alone for a month, when you are exhausted from physical exertion, exhausted from mental agony, and when you are cursed with more negative truths in a quarter of an hour than you think should be dispersed in a lifetime, that you can understand the intense relief that comes from the subtle gesture. From the sudden physical contact with the only person in the world you are apt to trust.
As we walked, I wrestled with my ethical questions about showing displeasure for the pleasure of others, and I prayed. Prayed relentlessly. For myself, for Joseph, for that enslaved Fen, for Mrs. Shire, and for the kids at West-End, and even for that mean old man who had hated us. I knew better than to just pray for one thing. How could I when it seemed everything itself was the problem?