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Atto’s Tale – Free Sample

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Chapter 5: An Unleashed Desire

“I think we would have been better off in the barn,” I conclude after doing a sweep of the farmhouse’s interior.

No matter how rundown the structure may look from the outside, inside is far, far worse.

Around the den, the remains of a couch have been strewn, as though an angry raccoon – or several – have taken out their small-clawed aggressions on it. Musty odor drifts up from the floorboards and in through the walls – a reminder never to take for granted the much feebler smells of the antiques found in Jerry’s Canned Heat Emporium. Overhead, fallen beams allude that it might not be a wise decision to venture to the second floor, lest we come crashing through the rotted wood and end up splintered and torn.

All in all, the place is trashed.

Ardette turns up his nose at a floor littered with fragments of waste and debris. “Yes, these accommodations are somewhat lacking. Especially considering the lavish motels you usually pick.”

“Very funny.” I kick at a tuft of couch fluff with my toe. “Sorry, Ardetto. Looks like we’ll be tracking mud into your precious vehicle after all.”

Ardette, never one for dirty things, wrinkles his nose in repugnance. “Ugh. I suppose running water and clean towels were too much to hope for,” he says.

“Way too much,” I agree. I pick a cleared spot of floor to stand in and do a final inspection of the accommodation that never was. “I wonder how someone could just leave an entire farm out here to rot away, anyway.”

Ardette has a theory.

“If I HAD to guess,” he says, attitude ripe, “I’d say it has something to do with the pooled power in yonder pond. Unusual things have been known to transpire at places of strong character. This being one of those places, the former inhabitants may have left for any number of reasons. A haunting perhaps.”

“Haunting?!” I take a reverse step into the corner.

“No, no.” Ardette fans the air. “Not a real one, mind you. I simply meant that condensed areas have the ability to twist nature and lead to paranoia.”

“And now I want to leave more than ever,” I say. “Let’s GO.”

But before I am able to make way for the door, Ardette catches me around the waist. From behind, his arm breaks across my abdomen. I’m pulled against him. “A moment, pit,” he says into my ear, low and soft. “I’ll be savoring this feeling.”

My pulse kicks. “F-feeling?”

“Mmhmm.” He takes the moment he demanded. In the meantime, I manage to say a single aching thing,

“Ardette.”

The thing comes out hushed. Standing motionless against his strong frame, the silence of the farmhouse has just hit me for the first time. It is the stillest sort of silence – a silence that makes me inexorably aware of myself and lends my ears the ability to hear a range of noises they wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. Breathing. Pulsing. The ruffling of a sleeve. I’d hear it if some distant floorboard creaked. Actually, I’d be glad for a distraction like that. But not a thing within the shambled farmhouse stirs, and so there’s nothing to hear but the own thudding of my chest.

My pores are pricked. My skin notices every bit of invisible air against it, but something much more obvious is Ardette’s arm remaining across my stomach. Inevitably, the enticement of it becomes me. My fingertips drift to his forearm’s warm skin. I connect with the hairs of his arm; the muscle beneath. Then I slide my hand until it meets his. Trembling, I hold him as he holds me.

“This reminds me of the place we met in our second life,” he says into my ear, voice keeping lower than low.

The second first time we met. I don’t even need to search my mind; the memory floats to the top on its own.

“The Osterflit keeper’s house,” I breathe.

I feel him nod behind me.

Yes, the humble abode of the deceased Osterflit keeper. Looking around with new eyes, I realize there is some similarity between this place and there. An abandoned residence in the middle of a forgotten field. An empty house. But places like this hold their own personality, too. In the absence of actual life, the structure takes on its own.

That feeling is the same here as it was there.

That time we met.

How annoying I found him then. Haughty and gaudy and persistent, and with an intolerable knack for reading my thoughts. But then there was a princely sort of charm about him too – something that made me want to see beyond his fronts.

He hasn’t changed. Not even the slightest, little . . .

Well, he no longer has horns, I guess.

The surrealism of it hits me.

This is what he meant about taking a moment. A moment for stepping out of the present and gathering what’s happened. A moment to absorb.

We really get to be together? After everything, we get another chance? A third chance.

How are we that lucky?!

Overcome, I spin to face my princely Daem. He doesn’t anticipate the action, and it reflects on his face. Taking him aback is a thing of scarcity. A thing I adore. Before he can say something snide, I wrap my arms around his neck in a hug. A non-sexual, non-nerve-arousing hug. I need him to hold me.

He does. He returns the gesture. Without cynicism. Without defense.

My cheek becomes pressed against his chest as he holds me in adoration. There is comfort. Safeness. I love him. I love him so much.

~

“My, my, having an overthinking again, are we? You know, my pit, if you aren’t careful, you’ll begin to develop unsightly worry lines right here.” Ardette flicks me in the forehead.

“Huh?!”

I’ve been caught in my head again.

Shoot!

The fault belongs with the coupe. Its sleepy rumbling, responsible for retreating me into my thoughts, is to blame.

Stupid fancy car.

The driver’s side window is cracked to allow a small amount of spring crispness into the air previously filled with only our exchanged breath. I use it to come to my senses. Guess invigoration has its usefulness after all.

“Do share what was so interesting in there;” Ardette lazes, glancing at me from the corner of his eye, “what was consuming your entire attention.”

I rub the spot he flicked and grumble, “Nothing really. It’s not like I was really worried about anything.”

Ardette drums the wheel. “What then, were you allowing to mull about in that distracted little skull of yours?”

Such a minor thing that if I answer, he’s going to sneer. But knowing him, he’ll imagine something worse than the truth if I don’t.

“Just that . . .” I start, guardedly. “I was kind of surprised our force ended up being wave.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“Well, . . . eh-heh . . .” I prepare myself for insult. “First there was wind, and then fire, so . . .”

I’ll let him finish.

“You expected earth?” he says dry as toast. “As in Earth, Wind and . . . Tell me you aren’t serious! As though the forces of the world would follow twentieth century music trends!”

“Well!”

He puts a hand to his temple, shakes his head, and lets out a condescending, “EGH.” And then, “Really, pit? Really?

So he says, but the side of his mouth shows signs of amusement.

The amusement only puts me grumpy. I slump into the seat and stare out the window in a pout. It was a perfectly reasonable thought, as far as I’m concerned.

“You’re too much,” Ardette coos.

We continue to drive through most of the day, stopping only for gas. The pit-stop is also a prime opportunity to clean up, so before anything else, we make use of the station’s dingy bathroom, which has one of those pull-down cloth towels on a reel that appears to have been last changed . . . NEVER. We aren’t picky. Our muddiness has long turned into a caked layer. Though a change of clothes makes things slightly better, the small sink doesn’t allow for an adequate hair washing. After several neck-craned attempts, I give up, slopping my hair into an oversized bun atop my head.

Ardette has better luck. He exits the bathroom looking fresh and neat. And shaved?

“You really don’t like messy things, do you?” I size him up sourly. But sourness is hard to maintain when he looks so desirable.

He begins a saunter down the station’s aisles.

“Care for a bite, my pit? Perhaps a . . .” He frowns upon inspection of the rotating hotdogs in the station’s deli. “Never mind. I won’t allow you to eat that. Go find whatever else you’d like. We’ll stop at the first decent-looking establishment we come across for a real meal.”

A hotdog would have been fine for me, and for a second I think about grabbing one just to spite him – until I notice that the dogs have an unhealthy green tint about them. Not happening. I trot away to find something else.

Ardette is waiting at the counter with a bag of jerky when I return.

Like that’s so much better than a hotdog! Well, whatever. I plop my pickings onto the countertop. Ardette takes time to study them before tossing a bill at the cashier.

“A jar of peanut butter and a bag of potato chips?” he says with disapproval.

“Yeah! Have you ever tried it? You dip the chips in the peanut butter. But regular chips won’t work. These are kettle chips.” I pat the bag proudly.

“Uh-huh.” He chews his cheek, unconvinced.

“You’ll see.”

“I highly doubt that.”

. . .

Ten minutes later, I sit satisfyingly plopping peanut-butter-dipped chips into Ardette’s mouth.

And I’m smug.

“They aren’t anything special,” he sniffs.

That hasn’t stopped him from eating a dozen or more. “All right, then,” I say. “You indulged me. If you don’t like them, I’ll eat the rest–”

“I didn’t say they were bad. Another,” he orders.

I cock a brow at him.

He rolls his eyes. “If you please.”

I shove a particularly large one mounded with peanut butter into his face. He takes it with an unprepared crunch! Excess peanut butter dribbles down the corner of his mouth. He wipes it away with his finger and then, more invested than necessary, licks it off.

Oh please. Like I’d be affected by something like that. Yet I’m forced to look away.

It’s Ardette’s turn to be smug. “Next time you do that,” he says, “you’ll be the one licking it off for me.”

My neck rises in temperature. Stupid! There is great frustration in my body’s reaction to him.

“I’m the only one who could put up with your foulness, you know,” I tell him.

His response is quiet: “I am aware.”

Because I expected something snappier from him, I steal a look to make sure I haven’t gone too far, but instead of displaying offense, he looks oddly sentimental. “You’re the only one I’d want to,” he says, eyes still on the road.

I love his foulness.

We drive tranquilly an hour more before we reach a town. A small, backwoodsy sort of town, but a town nonetheless. A real town? Holy tomato sandwich! Haven’t seen one of those in a while.

By this time, the sky is dark. As we drove, the sun crashed into the horizon, painting the dash in ochre, but now that night has fallen, only midnight blue cloaks the distance, dotted with sparse light from the town. Without the threat of Sowpa’s ‘dark forces’ finding us, we haven’t a reason NOT to turn in at a decent time tonight. A real meal and a full night’s sleep. Sounds appealing.

Ardette pulls into the first food-serving ‘establishment’ he sees, a bar called Freaky Frankie’s. Freaky Frankie’s? Reminds me of the gas station dogs.

While I picture the undesirable, ill-hued things, Ardette takes care to park his beloved ride several spaces away from the rest of the bar lot vehicles, in a corner clear of streetlight.

“What’s that they say about paranoia?” I mutter.

“I rarely find it beneficial to follow advice from unnamed groups of people,” he says. He comes around the side of the car to open my door for me, then loops his arm through mine and escorts me into Frankie’s.

Inside, warm air welcomes us, infused with the smell of plastic seat cushions and lit by vintage baroque pendant lights that Jerry of Jerry’s Canned Heat Emporium would surely covet. Their dim glow shines over each booth and above a worn pool table stashed near the back wall.

At the other end, a lone cowboy sings out-of-tune to a decade-old song. Something sappy about a missing wife and dog.

Gag. I really don’t like that stuff.

Lined along the bar are a few men and a woman who clearly thinks her iron-curled bangs make her quite the catch. All of them talk too loudly and laugh too enthusiastically for what is mostly likely a conversation lacking in nature. Yet they laugh and talk and laugh. All except for a man at the end, who remains silent and stares into a half-full beer as though the amber within holds the secret to happiness. For him, maybe it does.

Ardette strides through the room, inspecting booth tables as he goes, until finally finding one he deems worthy of our company. He gestures that I should take one side before scooting into the other.

I’m fairly certain the sign upfront said to wait to be seated, but Ardette isn’t the type to wait for something trivial like that. It’s probably better this way, anyway. He would only have caused the hostess grief for picking out a table with a smudge on it or something.

A few minutes later the bar’s one waitress – a relation of Frankie’s more than likely – holds a pad of paper before her nearsighted eyes and asks if we’d like to try the special – a type of trout, apparently.

“We’ll pass,” Ardette says, turning his nose up at the thought of fish from this rundown of a place. Instead, he orders a Reuben and whiskey. I order a burger and cola. And when we are finished, the waitress tucks the paper pad into her busty shirt and waddles away. I am left alone with Ardette beneath the dusky glow of vintage light, in a squeaky seat, while the pleasant sounds of drunken laughter and off-tune country and glass clinking surround us.

Ardette leans into the booth, arm over the back of the seat, and watches me. He says nothing; just watches.

It’s stuffy in here.

I avert my eyes into the happy hour menu.

It’s really stuffy in here.

And for some reason, I can’t think of a single thing to say. Not. A. Thing. Even though there’s so much to say, so many things to ask, so much to find out about him – the past lives he’s had, his experiences in this current one – I can’t bring myself to say anything. I can’t find even one word.

I venture to look at him again, and he’s still watching me, mouth entertained.

My stomach does a twist and my eyes again flee – this time to the shoddy pool table.

Why is it so stuffy in here!?

“Tut. Tut,” comes a coo from across the table. “Suppose it says something to our chemistry that I am able to make you nervous after all of this time.”

So that’s it; I’m nervous. Leave it to him to discern it before me. But wait. I’m nervous? Out of the blue? I wasn’t nervous in the car. But I’m definitely nervous now. I can feel my pulse in my neck. For what? It’s not like we’re about to share a bed again. And we’ve spent a lot of time like this the last couple of days. In close proximity. Not to mention, shared so many . . .

I bite my lip.

Thinking about kissing him makes it worse. To heck with that!

I look at him again and lie, “I’m not nervous.” But my neck knows the truth. It flares in heat.

“That so?” says Ardette. Eyes agleam, he leans forward, rests his elbows on the table, and begins to rub a thumb along his chin. “Well, that’s good. I worried you might be all giddy –” His eyes almost appear to flash red – “Considering it’s our first date.”

First date. First date? First date?!

Those last two words slither into the air and circle my head in a wrapping motion, forcing it to begin thinking. Over-thinking, to be more specific.

Our first date. Our first date ever. Just the two of us. Alone. Where other people can see us and assume we’re together. My pulse accelerates in my neck, so much so that it blocks my throat from opening. If I’m not careful I just might pass out.

  1. No matter what, I can’t let that happen. Because it would be awful.

Because Ardette would only gloat over making me swoon.

I fumble for something smart to say, and just when I worry my tongue has somehow fallen out and is flopping around on the floor, my salvation comes in the form of the busty waitress returning with cola and not only one but two whiskies.

She sets them on the table and wobbles away.

I eye the whisky suspiciously. Why’d she bring two? Ardette gestures at the happy hour menu. “Two-for-ones. Didn’t you notice?” He slides the second drink at me. “Drink up.”

“But I can’t–”

“Oh, Aura. The rules of this world are senseless. And besides, your soul is much older than the required age. Drink. It’ll help you get over your nerves.”

Guess that’s true.

In the hopes that it’ll allow me the courage to look Ardette in the eye, I bring the glass to my mouth and tip it back, but cannot hide the foul taste from my tongue. My mouth wrinkles in repulsion.

Ardette sniggers. “Here–” He reaches for my cola and begins guzzling it down.

“Hey!”

And when it is half gone, he pours the whiskey into the remaining cola, and gives the glass a shake. “Try that,” he says.

Mixed, the second drink is much better than the first, although the aftertaste is still nasty. I resort to drinking down the whole thing before I can taste it. Glug. Glug. AH.

I set the glass onto the table and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand.

All of this Ardette watches with traces of alarm, and when I am through, he injects, “Well, well. That was an interesting choice, my pit.”

I understand what he means after the waitress returns with our food. Something about the way her nearsighted eyes squint seems much funnier this time around. Oh. So whiskey is strong as far as alcoholic drinks go. So I downed the beverage too quickly on a stomach filled only shallowly with kettle chips and peanut butter. So it’s already beginning to affect me.

Smiling evilly, Ardette orders another for himself, and consequently, one for me.

The burger is thick and feels like a rock falling into the liquid of my stomach. A satisfying plop comes at the end of each swallow. Mmm. Turning brave from the liquor, I catch Ardette’s eye and smile like I’m remembering a joke. But there is no joke. Just a slight jumbling of my mind. Ardette returns the smile with one more puckish and shakes his head.

“Feeling better, are we?” he asks.

The second round of whiskey comes, and this time I don’t feel the need to mix it with anything but burger. Bite. Sip. Bite. Sip. First date jitters cast aside, I’m finally able to converse normally.

“SO Ardetto.” I set down my glass and toss a fry leisurely into my mouth. “What’s your major, anyway?”

“Biomedical Engineering.”

“Whoa, really?”

I wait for him to reveal that it’s a joke. He doesn’t.

“Yes, really,” he says disgruntledly.

“You’re kind of a nerd, then?”

“I’m KIND of trying to make sure we have an enriched life this time around.” He picks a piece of lint from his collar and eyes it with disgust.

But going to college for something like that takes preparation. Even before he found me, he was already planning things like our future? Plotting out the way our life would be together? Losing no faith that this time would be our time at last?

A bit of those jitters return. I take another sip from the glass. “I can’t imagine you sitting through a lecture, no matter how I try,” I tell him.

“And I can’t imagine you, the great savior of the world, waiting around that hoarder warehouse without any direction nor thoughts of your future.”

Harsh. “I don’t know. I just always felt like I was waiting for something,” I tell him. “I don’t even know what. Just something.” But the moment the confession comes, I sheepishly understand. “Or someone,” I add. It is as much an admission to myself as it is to him.

It’s Ardette’s turn to preoccupy himself with his food.

By now, my second glass of whiskey is nearly gone. So is my burger. The sad sounds of that unfortunate soul’s country continue to resound in the air. It’s horrid. Isn’t there someone else who’ll step up and take a turn?

I finish off the whiskey and allow it to sink in. It begins to creep around my body, somewhere between my stomach and my ribs.

Fiddling with his unused fork, Ardette is saying something about the way he thought I’d become a social worker or something. I’m not paying attention. I decide it’s my turn to speak.

“Ardetto . . .” I purr across the table when the warmth of the liquor is at its peak.

Ardette again settles into the plastic cushion and tosses an arm across the back of the seat. “Yes, my pit? Feeling warm, are we?”

“Were you a frat boy?” I ask with a giggle. “Because it seems like you’d be a frat boy.”

At this, his countenance stiffens. “Ugh. Of course not. Don’t lump me in with those moronic types.”

I giggle at him some more. The waitress returns to take our plates. “Another?” She nods toward my empty glass.

“I don’t think–” Ardette starts.

But I beat him to it. “Do you have anything that doesn’t taste so awful?” I blurt.

Looking unenthused, the waitress proceeds to ramble off something with two types of juices in it.

“Perfect!”

“It isn’t part of two-for-ones,” she warns.

“That isn’t a problem,” Ardette says dryly. He wants no part of something so fruity. As the curvy woman leaves, he turns his attention on me. “Fixing to become sloshed, are you? Well, I can’t say I’m not interested to see you drunk, my pit – as I recall, I’ve been responsible for your intoxication once or twice before – but I hope for your sake you don’t become . . . unruly.”

But while he’s lecturing, I am transfixed on his mouth. Why is it always such a focal point? Magnetic, almost. Soft. Warm. I chew my own in remembrance of his taste. Ardette swallows. “And for my sake, I hope you do,” he says, staring at my moving lips. Then he shakes his head and stares off across the bar in an attempt to remain cool. “I’ve a feeling this night will be another test of my morality. Fantastic.”

The third drink is indeed much better tasting. Fizzy and sweet and with only traces of bitterness.

“Ardettoes . . .”

“Aurelia?”

I scoot into the wall. “Come sit by me?”

By his reaction, it is just the sort of request he was hoping for. The dragon in him looks at me through his lashes with dark pleasure. “Gladly.” Like a silent thief, he slips around the table and into my seat, and loses no time bringing an arm around my shoulder and pulling me into his side.

My heart gives a kick, but is quickly stifled by the warm dizziness skulking through me. It feels good to be right up next to him. I allow myself to melt against him. My cheek falls against his chest; my fingers rest upon his solid abdomen. His free hand he uses to pull at a curl of his hair. His other he grazes along the top of my arm, near the shoulder.

It sends a shiver through my neck.

He feeds off of the effect, whispering, “Can I have some of you?”

It is an inquiry I’ve heard from him before, in a lifetime long ago. My response is a kiss to his neck. And then another that is deeper than it ought to be in a public setting.

“My, my, cherry pit,” he says. “You should feel fortunate that I’m an honorable man.”

“Hah!” I giggle into his neck.

He pushes his mouth into my hair, which is still holding a small amount of dried mud, and breathes.

His grazing hand on my arm moves down the side of my ribs. My body gives another shiver. “We should leave, Aura,” Ardette speaks against my hair. “We really must.”

I nod. It’s all right if we leave. Because it’ll mean I’ll have survived our first date. Ardette flags the waitress for the bill, and while he’s settling things, I realize that the room has gone silent. The depressed cowboy has returned to the bar, taking seat next to the downtrodden man staring into his glass.

An impulse, fueled by the liquor in my veins, overcomes me.

“Excuse me, Ardettoes.” I prod my dragon out of the seat. He obeys only because he’s amused by my sudden stricken determination, and before he can stop me, I have moved halfway across the room to the place where the microphone waits.

. . .

“You weren’t lying. You really can’t sing at all, can you?”

We drive through town in search of an elusive bed and breakfast mentioned by the nearsighted waitress.

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad, was it?” I say, words admittedly a little slurred.

“About as bad as a cat taking a bath,” is Ardette’s reply.

“Mean!”

“Would you prefer dishonesty?”

“No . . .” In truth, I am already fully aware of what a terrible singer I am.

Ardette sniggers. “You up there belting out your heart for Frank’s most devoted patrons.” His lips purse. “At least you looked adorable doing it.”

Whatever. I’m warm, and happy, and sleepy. Too sleepy to care that I’ve just made an ‘adorable’ fool of myself.

Fifteen minutes later, we find the bed and breakfast. A large white house, Victorian style, sits amidst a night-blanketed yard complete with neat fence and rolling garden. “How quaint,” Ardette notes in a drone. Yes, he’s being sarcastic, but the word adequately describes the place perfectly. A quaint, quaint getaway at the edge of a small, small town.

The wheels make a crunching against the dirt of the lot as we turn into a space. I like that crunch. Cruuuunch.

Noises are much more pleasant than normal at the moment. Like my ears can feel them more than hear them. There’s something magical about the way their tonal quality hits me. And while I’m lost in sound-induced pleasantness, Ardette is shrewdly examining our surroundings through the windows, checking for any hiding fiends that may be waiting.

He notices the anomaly first.

Of course he does – because I’m not suited for shrewdness just now. Each time I move my head, whatever was previously in view grows a tail. The picture through my eyeholes repeatedly blurs until my mind catches up with my eyes.

“Is that a sword?” I hear the shrewd boy mutter. When I turn to look at him, he’s stretching his neck to see out the dash, squinting at a sign above us – the bed and breakfast’s sign. He squints a moment more before –

“You have got to be kidding me!”

– in a lightning move, he turns vicious.

Now, inexplicably fuming, he unbuckles himself and storms from the car. Confused, I fumble for the handle, but per usual, he reaches it first. “Tell me, if you’d be so kind, how we always manage to find ourselves in the least desirable of places!” he spits at me upon opening the door.

“What? Atto?” I’m too discombobulated to be much help.

He notices my perplexed expression. “Apologies, Aura. Don’t worry about it.” Head shaking angrily, he helps me from the car, then moves to the trunk to collect our bags.

I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all! I strain my eyes to see the sign, but it’s too dark, and my focus is too off. He said he’d seen a sword up there? A bed and breakfast with a sword on its sign?

“And for another thing,” he mutters vilely into the trunk, “how is it that a town of such puny population maintains a bed and breakfast specifically catering to Dungeons and Dragons?! It’s hardly a lucrative notion!”

Dungeons and Dragons? As in that roleplaying game?

“Personally, I like dragons,” I tell him earnestly because it is the first thought that comes to my mind.

“Hah. Hah. A comedian you’ve become, have you? Come on, drunken pit.” With that, Ardette grabs hold of my wrist and pulls me with him up the walk into the world’s first D&D B&B.

Inside is a bizarre sight indeed. I know so, even in my current state. In what I can only imagine is the collaboration between a senile woman and her whimsical grandson, the interior is filled with crocheted doilies, floral patterns, and pointless bric-a-bracs . . . as well as cases and cases of tiny monster figures, and bookshelves lined with rulebooks. At one time this was unquestionably just a regular bed and breakfast. I can tell. The rest of this fantasy stuff was added later – an afterthought resulting in pure mishmash.

But if I want to learn the reasoning behind such madness, I can’t. The person working is neither the senile woman nor her grandson, but a pretty girl with dark eyeliner. I determine – without much good reason – that she knows nothing; and so while Ardette goes to speak with her, I begin to browse the foyer.

Ceramic cat figurine . . . Sack full of polyhedral dice . . . Painting of a little girl in a sunhat . . . Box labeled ‘Dungeon Masters Only’ . . . Just-for-show tea set . . . Little plastic elf toy? To that, I scoff.

Everyone knows all elves have green hair.

“Aurelia, I’ve gotten us a room upstairs.” Ardette calls to fetch me just as I’m glaring at the yellow-haired elf. “Their roleplay, or what have you, starts at ten if you’d like to join.”

I wonder how much of a roleplay can be had, considering there were only two other cars in the lot, one of which probably belongs to the eye-lined girl.

To answer my unspoken question, Ardette continues, “Apparently many enthusiasts live around here. They don’t rent a room, per se, merely come for the game.”

“So that’s how they manage to stay in business.”

He nods. “Let’s get to our room before they begin arriving, shall we? I’ve a feeling they won’t be our kind of people.”

Realistically, though, they’re probably exactly our kind of people. Regardless, I haven’t the energy to argue with him now.

Fearing my own sluggishness, I try to step lightly up the stairs. This only results in overcompensation, and I end up prancing like a pompous horse. Ardette walks behind in case I become unsteady. Oh dear. I’m a hindrance.

The door to our room comes, but I pass it.

“This way, my pit.”

I backtrack.

Ardette pushes through the door and tosses our bags onto a wicker chair in the corner. “I made sure to get us a room with a bathroom en suite. You, stinky pit, may wash first.”

But not before taking in the room’s incredible ambiance. An oak dresser, topped with framed pictures of people from the 80s. A white hat placed on the wall like art. A pale comforter atop a four-poster bed. This bed, at least, looks much more inviting than the buggy, and again, appears NOT to rotate.

“This is a grandma’s room,” I say assuredly.

“Yes, yes. Now into the bathroom with you.”

Ardette scoops my things from the wicker chair and tosses them in after me. I let my clothes fall into a pile on the bathmat and then step into the shower, which has a bottom so cold that it forces me to stand on my tiptoes until the water has washed over the whole of it.

Mmm. Soapy. Bubbly. This shower is longer than my everyday showers. Mainly because I’m staring at the way the water falls over my hands as though it’s incredibly complex science. My fingers fumble. They’re lazy. Yet somehow, I manage to get every last speck of mud from my hair. I manage to haphazardly shave my legs. I manage to turn the faucet and dress in a towel. Just like I do at home, I walk from the bathroom, to the bedroom, with a towel wrapped around my middle, clamped to my body by my armpits.

Only . . .

This isn’t home.

And there’s a hungry dragon waiting in the other room.

When he sees me, he says nothing, though it looks as though he’d very much like to say more than nothing. Jaw tight, he stares at my exposed collarbone a handful of seconds, breathing only through his nose, before swallowing and shoving past me into the bathroom. Once there, he closes the door with more energy than necessary. I wouldn’t say it’s a full slam, though.

“GET DRESSED.” His words come through the door.

Followed, a minute later, by my bag, which I left lying on the tiled floor. Taking Ardette’s side, it comes flying out at me without restraint.

The second time Ardette closes the door, it’s a full slam.

Whoops.

Realizing my mistake, I hurry to dress, comb out my hair, and hop onto the lumpy bed. Lumpy or not, this one is much safer than the last. Far fewer kinky things happen in a B&B than in a pioneer’s fantasy suite, I assume. Then again, if this is a roleplay themed place . . .

I shake the idea away and listen to the hum of shower coming from underneath the bathroom door. Since when do showers sound so . . . inviting? My intoxicated mind begins to drift.

He’s in there. Completely naked. Separated by just a door. One door. I doubt it even has a lock.

Ardette. Ardetto. Ardettttoooesss.

At this very moment, water is falling over his chest and back and shoulders. His hair is wetly plastered to his head. He’s wiping the water from his eyes and rubbing at his face. Chin. Jaw. Neck. All trickled with sliding drops of wetness. The space between us is filled with magnetic particles that fight to pull me to him.

I bring a hand to my mouth and press into the plush of my bottom lip. I am not fearful like I was last night. That feeling is still back with freaky Frankie. Now, I feel only the desires previously clouded by my nerves and thoughts and anxieties.

I want him.

I want to feel his mouth against mine, tasting me as I taste him. I want him to throw my body onto the pale comforter. To force my hands and bite my lip. I want to wrap my legs around his waist and become tied up with him, tousled in the sheets.

I want to be lost in him. Consumed with nothing but him. Forever and ever and ever.

The water stops, and I hear him begin to dress. I find myself sitting on the edge of the bed, gripping the mattress.

Eventually, the door to the bathroom opens. The navy sweatpants are back, framed by a cloud of steam from the shower. At the sight of my dragon, my chest takes in an uneven breath that it forgets to release.

Ardette begins a smug strut into the room. “Why, my pit, what a surprise. I thought you’d be out cold.” He shifts to wryness. “That, or cowering in a corner, wrestling with your conflicted yearnings.”

There’s no confliction. Ardette’s chest is exposed. His stomach, too, down past the navel. Desire. I feel nothing but desire for him.

From here, everything happens fast. I feel as though I’m floating behind a body that has begun spontaneously acting on its own as it hops from the bed and rushes the unassuming twenty-something. Before I know it, my mouth is thrown on his; my fingers are ensnarled in his wet hair.

Ardette attempts to say something through the kiss, but gives up after the third word, and begins kissing me back. Passionately. Deeply. Slowly. In the middle of the grandma’s room, our mouths move together.

We were made for this.

As pictured, he lifts me from the ground effortlessly, but doesn’t toss me onto the bed; instead, he takes me to the edge of it, sets me down and continues to move his mouth with mine. With intention. I clutch at his back and wrap my legs around him and pull his body over mine. He obliges by crawling onto me.

I want him. Hundreds of years I’ve waited to have him. If I don’t have him now, I won’t be able to live.

His hands find the bottom edge of my cotton shirt and begin to slide it up my waist. This starts a sinful feeling low in my stomach. But it isn’t a bad thing. It’s indulgent. Gluttonous. Meanwhile, I, too, am pulling at the waistband of his pants, fighting with my sloppy fingers to be productive.

He pulls away from my hungry mouth long enough to pant and say, “All mine.” Then he moves to my neck and wets it with his mouth. I let out a cry, soft, as his hand finds my chest.

“I love you so much more than anything,” I say. But because of the alcohol lingering within me, the words are slow to come out. They’re too slow. Too lagging. And they ruin everything.

When he hears them, Ardette stops. He leaves his hand on my chest a moment longer, caressing me gently with his thumb, before sliding it away. He does not lift himself from my body.

“You, my pit, are drunk,” he says into the bed over my shoulder. “And I, my pit, need to leave.”

Leave? N . . . No! That’s the last thing I want!

“What are you . . .” I bumble. “Why?

“Because I love you.”

“Then stay.”

But in flash, Ardette is off of me. He finds a shirt, throws it on, and leaves out the door, while I remain grabbing at the place he just was – the place his warmth has yet to leave.

“Go to bed, Aura.”

That is the last thing I hear from him for the night, followed by the brisk stomping of a frustrated man’s footsteps.

I am angry and confused and tired. Mostly tired.

Before I know it, I’ve fallen asleep.

~

The night is spotted with dreams.

When they end, and when earliest dawn light is streaming through a checkered curtain over the room’s sole window, I wake. I’m curled into a ball, and I can feel no warmth coming from any other body in the bed.

That’s because there isn’t another body in the bed.

Ardette’s sleeping form is limp in a chair. Not the wicker one, but a plump paisley armchair in the opposite corner. His neck is cranked to the side unnaturally, and a wad of shirt is stuffed between his ear and shoulder as a makeshift pillow.

I blink at him. Why is he there?

I can’t begin sorting through the events of last night just yet. I have to go to the bathroom before anything else. I give my knees a final hug before deciding to rise, and find that my leg has a lovely long patch of hair running up the center. My slapdash shave job from last night left me with a mohawk. How ladylike.

I trot to the bathroom to relieve myself, in the meantime, giving a quick dry swipe up the center of my leg with the razor. I half-brush my teeth and do a quick run through my hair with the brush on the counter for good measure.

All right. Now halfway decent, I return into the room. Some part of my routine was loud enough to wake Ardette. Shoot. Even though I was so quiet! He sits in the chair, bags under his eyes and frowning adamantly at me.

“Well, I was up all night lost in a cursed forest,” he says.

The absurdity of it gets to me first.

“You were playing that game?”

“You’ll be pleased to know I am well on my way to becoming a level two Cleric.”

“Cleric?” I say. “Out of everything?”

“I was trying to maintain integrity while knowing you were up here, vulnerable and willing.”

I don’t entirely understand. The events from last night are still hazy.

Rising from the chair, Ardette goes on, “You, my cherry pit, are the cruelest type of woman.”

Sounds like a clue, but I don’t quite grasp it.

Peeling back the covers on his side of the bed, Ardette persists, “I waited until I thought it safe to return. Until I was certain the beast within you had calmed.”

“Beast . . .?” It comes waffling back to me. Ungainly and ruthless. OH! Last night I was unruly. Just as Ardette feared.

“Oh Creator!” I cup my mouth to contain the gasp that wishes to exit. “I was all over you.”

“Yes, you were. And I you. And it was one of the most enjoyable moments of my present life. Now then–” He hops into bed. “Allow me a few hours of gropeless sleep, would you?”

I stand frozen in the bathroom doorway.

“Now, now, Aurelia. You can’t tell me you aren’t still tired. Wouldn’t want our angel to have a hangover, would we? The forces would be so disappointed.”

At his invitation, I walk timidly across the cold floor and crawl into bed beside him. Because I’m suffering of guilt, I lie facing away from him. His breathing is already turning heavy. I hear it coming out of him deeply. He’s exhausted.

“Sorry about that,” I say quietly. “I should have controlled myself better.”

He doesn’t respond, so I add, “You know, you probably could have . . . I mean, I really love you so much, and I really wanted to . . .”

“I would never, like that,” he says, perturbed. “Not if you wouldn’t even remember it.” His tone drastically changes to something passionate. “I want you to remember every last movement.”

I am quiet.

Ardette’s breathing becomes even.

“Thanks,” I whisper, feeling even guiltier.

And then I roll over to face him.

His dark eyes are closed; his face tired. He doesn’t look innocent, as some boys may, resting like that. He doesn’t look like a puppy or any other young animal. He looks like a sleeping lion. A proud, dangerous dragon, always.

And he isn’t all the way asleep yet.

The dragon, reaches for me and pulls me to him like a gathering of blanket. I kiss his cheek to show my remorse, and together we sleep again.

Each time, it feels more natural than the last.

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The World Remains – Chpt. 1

WorldReamins

Chapter 1: Forbidden Fruit of Knowledge

Dear G–

‘The Ring of Perfection: It is a story I’ve heard a thousand times; one I’ve told hundreds. Something like clay planted beneath our city, it shifts with the shifting views of those who keep it. It evolves from year to year, from retelling to retelling, but never strays far from its root.

Do I belong?

I used to think so.

Until I found out what I really was.

That first day was a lonely day indeed . . .’

On an afternoon stained with rainwater, I walked to class.

Half-heartedly, begrudgingly, I walked to the concrete schoolhouse at the center of a field. On days more vibrant, the walk was enjoyable, but amidst the slop of messy, clinging blades, even the scent of rain provided little enjoyment.

The previous night had been a celebration, and I was still tired from that. I’d come out of slumber undercooked, and I was paying the price.

If the walk were any indication, the day would surely drag.

Damn.

There it was. A rigid building whose sign simply read: Schoolhouse.

‘It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d even come to realize how generic it was to call something ‘Schoolhouse,’ ‘Clinic,’ or ‘Market.’ Within our fairytale, we were children playing house. There was a lack of authenticity to anything and everything we were.

But all of that would change.

It was already beginning to change . . .’

There was no activity around Schoolhouse’s door. My classmates were already inside. It was my own fault. Because I’d woken up too early to go where I wasn’t supposed to, and stayed later than I should have.

But it was worth it!

So I sucked up whatever crankiness I had and pulled the door’s handle. I heard it immediately. That holy tale. That cherished story.

Cherished? Blegh.

Teacher Dole had been at it for a while, it seemed. His voice had already transitioned from dry to croaky.

“Consider this, students,” he was saying. “Never has there been an economic or scientific need for assimilation. Assimilation is simply a phenomenon that happened on its own. If you think about in that respect, it is something quite astonishi–”

Reeeek! The classroom door’s noisy spring betrayed me.

Shoot! I’d been hoping to duck in unnoticed.

“AHEM. Nice of you to join us, Student Ashlin,” said Dole.

Those gritted teeth were for me? How sweet. I gave the young teacher a tip of the head; then shuffled to the backside of the classroom and settled into my chair, chin down and eyes betraying. Dole shook his head because he knew where I’d been. He didn’t reprimand me, though. He just carried on,

“Earlier generations pushed away from the inevitable; but with scientific advancement, came an opening of minds. At last, people came to an understanding: Everyone was equal.”

I searched through my pack for a notebook. It was pointless, though. I already knew this lecture.

Everyone was equal.

I was equal to the three other students in my class.

I was equal to all ninety people remaining in the world.

“Integration,” said Teacher Dole. “It is a holy path. Can anyone tell me why?”

Cat-faced Lale raised her hand. No surprise there. When it came to the classroom, the little snob was always first to speak and last to leave. The good teacher loved that most about her.

“Yes, Student Lale?” he said, and smiled – in my humble opinion – much wider than he should have.

Lale returned the smile. “Integration is holy because with integration, perfection was attained,” she recited. “From one race we came and to one race we became. The circle completes with us.” She drew a circle with her finger to prove her point. “In that way, history made the Ring of Perfection.”

I yawned and peered through the window that was still dripping with remnants of storm. I’d just gotten there, and I was already bored. That was because I’d heard this tale daily. Humans had once been different. Distinguishable. A multi-ethnic painting of flesh across the face of the earth. But that had been way back when, in a time that no longer mattered.

Now things were . . .

“Very good, Student Lale,” said Teacher Dole, pulling at his collar. Her know-it-all butt-ins always made him hot. “Every generation evolves closer and closer into one true race. The perfect race. That means that, as one of the youngest remaining generations, you are the holiest of humanity.”

Lale nodded hungrily. I rolled my eyes. Holiest, shmoliest. It was no fun being the holiest of the remaining humans if it meant there were only a handful of us left.

The ‘Ring of Perfection’ was a bunch of crap.

The truth was the world was dying, we were the only ones left, and that holiness spiel was just a lie to make us feel better.

But Teacher Dole didn’t think so. “It is true,” he continued, “that convergence into one perfect race is the natural flow of evolution. Any that argue are foolish.”

Lale smiled to herself. I heaved a sigh and scribbled into my notebook. To an outsider, I looked obedient, like a student keeping good record of her studies. But an outsider would be fooled in the worst way. I wasn’t taking notes at all. I was writing a letter. To a secret person that was waiting for me on the outskirts of the commune. I’d meet him after class. Just as I always did. Just as I’d done before. I tried not to let my thoughts roam too freely, though, because knowing that he was waiting for me made the moist classroom even more unbearable.

“As you know, students, the last of you has passed their twelfth year. With Student Kinamo’s turning, the youngest of your class has reached adulthood. You are all aware of this, correct?” said Teacher Dole.

Aware? Of course we were aware! Not only had Kinamo been flaunting it for days, we’d been forced to attend a gaudy celebration complete with fireworks and sugared water the night before. My turning hadn’t been anything like that. It had been simple. But then, Kinamo was anything but simple. He was obnoxious. As flashy as the fireworks he’d demanded.

The boy in question was beaming because he was the center of attention again. Lale tried to catch my eye. She, too, was aware of Kinamo’s garish nature, and she wanted to exchange in some sort of camaraderie, I guess. But I was still angry with her for her actions the previous night – the actions that had exiled my secret person from the festivities – so I let her eyes linger and fall, uncaught. She hurried to find the eyes of the only other girl in our class: Bess. Bess would oblige. Bess was a girl hell-bent on people pleasing.

“Now then,” said the teacher. “With the turning of the last of you, the time has come for me to introduce you to . . .” He cleared his throat. “Something new.”

I looked up. That was different. Teacher Dole was ahead of schedule. Usually, the holiness pitch would’ve gone another ten minutes or more. Whatever. ‘New’ probably just meant an introduction to trigonometrics or something. I continued to scribble the secret note.

But there were others in the class that found the sermon at least a little interesting.

Lale had released Bess’ gaze, and was staring intently at Teacher Dole.

The wind outside sent a splatter of old raindrops against the window. Dole frowned at the interruption before picking up where he’d left off.

“Now, you’ve all been told time and again that the races, which were born as one, split during an era of separation before converging into one mixed race. You’ve also learned that we are of that remaining race. That we are the ‘Remnants’ of humanity.” Teacher Dole paused. “What I must tell you now is that you’ve been misled.”

“Misled?” mouthed Lale. The little snob was quickly losing the flush in her cheeks. Again she searched the room for a gaze of camaraderie. She wouldn’t find it in me, though. I was staring at Teacher Dole.

The way he was chewing his lip . . .

What the heck!?

“We will now watch a video,” he said. “And it will be,” – The stiff man stopped to think carefully about how he would deliver the next line – “hard to stomach, but I assure you, it is a video all of our people must watch at one point or another.”

Kinamo grabbed the front of his desk and used it to pull himself forward. “Truly?” he yelped. “Hard to stomach? What is it? Things that are dead?! Things that have rotted?!”

“Don’t look so excited, Student Kinamo.” Teacher Dole’s expression was foul, as it usually was when addressing the brassy boy.

Kinamo’s nose flared.

Dole walked to the wall and input something into the numbered pad there. “Upon watching this footage,” he said, “you shall become full adults.” He took another moment to fiddle with the command pad and then, “Students Lale, Bess, Kinamo, and Ashlin, it is with a lamenting heart that I now feed you the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Eat it and awaken!”

‘The forbidden fruit. A fruit forcibly eaten. A fruit that, once tasted, could never be forgotten.’

I hadn’t anticipated anything like this. I’d expected a brief retelling of the Ring of Perfection, followed by an hour of arithmetic, followed by tea. But today was special. Or better, it was cursed.

With wide eyes, I watched the projected image that appeared on the wall. The room let out a collective gasp.

The video! It was–!

I’d never seen anything like it, so it took a moment for me to react, and even when I did, I said nothing. I just shook and squinted and made a strange burping noise at the back of my throat.

“W-who?” stuttered Lale.

“Hell!” yelled Kinamo.

Bess, too, was muttering something. Hers, though, was more of a sob.

The others were the same. They couldn’t understand it either. For there, upon the wall, was the image of thousands and thousands of people. People that looked nothing like us. People that were different.

What was wrong with them?!

I was fair-skinned. Blonde. Blue-eyed. So, too, were the others in the class. The last ninety humans were that way. But the people on the video? That massive, massive group of people? They were . . . abnormal. Their hair was dark; their skin bronzed.

“Who?” Lale said again, now white as a ghoul. “Who are they?”

“What you see before you,” said Dole, gesturing to the wall, “is the TRUE integrated race of humanity.”

Not knowing what else to do, I stared at the screen and rubbed my temple. If these golden people were ‘true,’ then what were we? False?

Hah!

But never once had our teacher jested. Never once had he played. “This is true integrated race,” he said once more.

Kinamo was first to show his disquiet.

“True race?!” He jumped to his feet. “Impossible! There are so many! And WE are the only ones left! WE are the end of the circle! And . . . how did they get that way?! Look at their skin! And their hair!”

Dole held up his hands. “Breathe, students. Breathe.”

It was too much. So I did as he said. I took in a breath. And then another. And it felt good. Gradually, my racing heartbeat slowed to an acceptable pace. Gradually, Kinamo returned to his seat.

“What is this?” I held my chest and inhaled the air that felt thicker than normal.

“It is not your imagination,” said Dole. “The room has been infused with tranquilizer to help you cope. These reveals have been known to be . . . shocking.”

Shocking.

“Breathe, remain calm, and listen,” said Dole.

That sort of thing was getting easier the more breaths I took.

There was silence until, “I get it,” squeaked Bess. “This video is from the time of separation! This is from the twentieth century or something!”

Oh. That made sense. Good one, Bess! Of course it was ancient documentation of the time before true integration.

My thirteen-year-old worldview was restored!

But only until–

“This footage was taken last year.”

–Teacher Dole forcibly pushed more fruit into our mouths.

“W-what!?” cried Lale. Her head was wobbly upon her thin, lanky neck. She brought it into her hands before it could fall on its own.

Meanwhile, Kinamo landed a lazy fist on the table. He probably would have stood, had it not been for the infused air of the classroom.

“We are not the circle of assimilation’s end,” said Teacher Dole. “They are. They are evolution’s endpoint. Not us.”

He meant to tell us that the people in the video were the ultimate mixed race? But that made no sense! What about US?

It didn’t matter ‘about us,’ apparently.

“A very long time ago,” he said, “when the races first started to cross, some believed that the nations would grow to be more and more different, genetically; that only a small portion of the population would blend, and that humanity as a whole would evolve apart. However, that wasn’t the case.” He motioned to the video of strangers. “As technology advanced, and travel and integration became easier and easier, the opposite was true. Over centuries, the races converged. And it was an awesome thing. The pinnacle of equality. An erasing of hatred. The road to unity and understanding.”

I squeezed the edges of my desk. We knew all of this. We KNEW that humanity had converged and died until all that remained was us. We knew it. WE were the Remnants, so why was Teacher Dole still rambling? And why did I feel like falling over?

“The powers that be were fearful,” he went on. “Fearful of losing the roots of humanity. So from all corners of the world, small portions of the population were removed and put into small communities, segregated into family lines that would breed only with one another. Gray-eyed people here, deep-skinned people there, all manner of nationalities were plucked and sequestered away to their own communes.”

“Hold up!” Kinamo’s eyes bulged. “You do not mean–!”

Teacher Dole nodded. “All to preserve the ancient races. And what is more . . .” He paused and locked eyes with each of us before continuing: “You and I belong to one of those sects.”

The forbidden fruit made its way down my gullet and into my belly.

Kinamo tried to reject it: “But Teach–”

Dole cut him off. “For countless generations our ancestors have been secluded from the rest of the world as an act of preservation. In that sense we are NOT Remnants. To the rest of the world, we are Purités.”

Purités?!” yelped Kinamo.

Whatever that meant.

Dole nodded again. “I understand that this is painful and unfathomable, but it is time for you to grow up. Consider this the last step to your coming of age.”

“But there are so many of them! How can that many people exist?!” Kinamo was gaping at the tan-skinned mass. The tranquilizer was wearing from him, judging by his gusto.

“Ah, yes,” said Dole. “Another thing. As you can see, the population today is not ninety, and it is even more than the crowd in this video. It is, in fact, ten billion or so.”

“TEN BILL–” started Kinamo.

“SILENCE, STUDENT KINAMO!” Teacher Dole had had enough. He threw an open palm at the wall of projected bodies. “You must move past a childhood of fairytales and become aware of the real world! You’ve had your turn to be sheltered! Many of you will be married soon, so it is imperative that you understand! It is up to YOU to keep our race alive!”

“Why?” blubbed Lale. “If we aren’t holy, if we aren’t the circle’s end, then why?! What’s our purpose?!”

“Why?” repeated Dole. He tapped his chin. “Because we are a living archive of what once was. We are rare. We are special.”

But as I watched the masses of same-skinned, same-haired people mingling on the screen before me, I realized:

More than anything, we were caged.

‘I wasn’t a Remnant. I was a Purité. I was alone. But at the same time, not alone. I belonged, but I also didn’t belong. I was apart from humanity. But I was a part of something intimate. I was a paradox.

At that time, I didn’t know anything. And to be honest, I still don’t know much of anything. I didn’t know what to do, so I did then what I do now. I went to him. To the one person I could count on.’

“Olté!”

The fields at the back of the schoolhouse were wet. The air still misted, though the largest of the drops no longer fell. The shorts I wore went down only to my knees, so the lower parts of my legs were instantly wet from the blades of grass that sopped and clung.

Olté’s place was away from the rest of the village. That was fine. I had to get away. The walls of my worldview were crumbling, so I had to get far, far away. As far as I could. Miles of wilderness surrounded us. I could’ve kept running forever, it seemed. But I had to stop. I had to grab Olté on the way. I had to whisk him along.

There was his home. Brick. Stout. With a lovely bed of lilacs beneath the front window. Olté was one for green things. He always had been. But because he wasn’t allowed in the main market, his planting tendencies were fueled by seeds I’d smuggled for him or ones he’d gathered in the forest.

“Olté!”

I didn’t knock. I barged right through. Olté didn’t offer any sort of welcome.

“Criminy, Ashlin! I’m indecent!”

“Ack! You are!?” I prepared to turn away, but let my eyes linger because I was curious. Olté was clad in jeans and a garden-stained t-shirt. He wasn’t indecent at all!

“You are not,” I said. “And besides, it doesn’t matter. I have something incredible to tell you!”

“Calm down, spazoid!” He pointed to his closed right eye. “I AM indecent! So just hold on a sec and let me get my patch!”

“Oh.” That was what he’d meant. I fanned at him. “Go on. But hurry, would you?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said.

I continued to watch, hoping for a glimpse of the iris behind his right lid, but he turned his back to me, so I studied that instead. His hair matched mine. So did his skin. Maybe after seeing the shocking true state of the world, staring at his similarity would bring me comfort. But it didn’t. Yes, I was comforted, but it wasn’t the similarity of our features that did it. It was his presence. It was him. My secret person. My charming outcast.

“There.” He finished knotting the patch’s belt at the back of his head and turned to me, right eye now decently covered. “What’s the big deal, Ash?” He rubbed his forehead and scowled. “I COULD have been naked, you know.”

“Psh. Naked schmaked. That doesn’t matter at all,” I said.

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?! Of course it matt–”

“Nope! Me seeing you naked would be a small shock in comparison to what Teacher Dole told us today!” I threw out my hands. “Just wait ‘til you hear!”

“Hold on, hold on. Have a seat.” He gestured to the only chair in the cottage. “Let me get my notebook.”

I blinked at him. Notebook? Oh, right! He thought I was going to show him arithmetic or something. Well, I couldn’t really blame him for that. It was our daily routine after all; me sneaking over to pass along what I’d learned at school. For years I’d been stealing knowledge from the classroom, and for years I’d been secretly giving it to the one person that wasn’t allowed in. To the boy that didn’t count.

“Olté.”

I said his name quietly because I needed to feel it on my lips – to reaffirm that he existed.

He heard it anyway. “Hm?” He was shuffling through the stand at the side of his bed.

Nothing. “It’s nothing.”

But it was something.

I was thinking about IT again – the tally.

There was a giant stone abacus beneath the steel clock in the courtyard behind city hall. Reachable only by the town’s tallest ladder, the mechanical thing was a tally to show how many of us remained. A symbol to show just how small and ‘sanctified’ we were. Cracked and wind-worn, the abacus counted ninety, just as it had said since the death of Grandpa Archer and the birth of Baby Archilade. We had an uncanny way of compensating for death with new life. Thus, the number never long fluctuated from ninety. Ninety remnants – or rather, ninety Purités – were all that remained within our commune.

At least, according to that stupid tally.

But even before the forbidden fruit, I’d known for some time now that the tally was a lie. The count, held so precious to us ‘sanctified’ Purités, was a deceit. Nothing more. Nothing less. There weren’t ninety of us remaining, at all.

There were ninety-ONE.

But number ninety-one didn’t exist. Not really. Olté was only three years my senior, so he should’ve been included in my generation. He should’ve been among us that were holy. But he wasn’t. He was taboo.

“What? Why aren’t you sitting?” asked the uncounted one, notebook prepped and ready in his hand.

“Oh.” I shook my head to clear my thoughts. “I was thinking about you.”

“Eh?” He raised a suggestive brow.

“Never mind.”

“You’re being weird today,” he said. “Then again, I guess you’re a little weird every day.”

I shook my head to shake it away. There were more important things right now: Namely, the reason I’d come sprinting over here in the first place! “Oh right!” I spurted. “Listen to this! So today in class we watched a video, and you’ll never BELIEVE what was . . .” But I stopped because he’d cracked a smile. “Uh, Olté?”

“So that’s what this is about?” he said quietly. “A video?” He laughed.

I stared at him dumbly and said, “Yeah, a video, but why are you grinning at me like that?”

“Finally.” He threw his head backward and let out another laugh, this one more animated than the first.

I gaped at him. “Finally?”

“Yup,” said Olté. “Finally.”

The way he was just standing there, all grinning like an idiot . . .

It set me off.

“WHAT THE HECK DO YOU MEAN FINALLY!?” I narrowed my eyes and waited for an answer, positive that none he could give would be sufficient enough to calm my coming wrath.

Olté didn’t fear the wrath at all. He tossed the notebook to the bed, came to me, and set a hand atop my head. “Ash,” he said, grinning. “I’ve been waiting for you to grow up for a long time. You know that?”

I pushed him away. “What? You don’t mean to tell me . . .”

He nodded.

“You KNEW? About the video? About all of those golden people?”

He nodded again.

“Unbelievable!” After everything I’d shared with him! After all of the rules I’d broken for him! After–

“Cool it, Ashy,” he said. He placed the hand I’d refused onto my shoulder and squeezed. “Didn’t you guys go over the ‘Melojim’ dealie?”

“Meloheeem?” That sounded vaguely familiar. Yes, Teacher Dole had said something about that at one point today, but I couldn’t exactly remember . . .

“Let me guess,” said Olté. “You were off in your own little world after seeing that video.” He tipped his head in consideration. “No, on second thought, you were probably panicking, right?”

True story.

Not that I’d admit it.

“Let me see your notes from today,” he said with an amused sigh.

“What? No!”

He folded his arms. “Why not?”

Because I was pretty sure there was at least one doodle of him in there.

He cracked another smile. “Fine. If you won’t show me, at least flip through there yourself. Even when you space out in class, your notes are always spot on, right? So check there. Look for something called the Melojim.”

I narrowed my eyes at him suspiciously.

“Just look.”

“Grrr. Fine. But I’m still mad at you,” I said.

“I know. I know.”

I was mad. I was very, very mad.

Until I wasn’t. It didn’t take long for me to locate the term he was talking about. He was right. I frequently zoned out, yet my notes were always perfect. Guess my brain was good at autopilot.

I read aloud the first bullet under the word ‘Melojim’:

“If any from the non-turned generations learn the true nature of the Purités, bla bla bla, they shall be put to death at public execution for acts of treason against the . . . WHAT?!”

Olté nodded.

“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” I scanned the paper again, just to be sure.

Olté shrugged. “Not when you consider how important it is for them to maintain the structure of things. The state of your people is so fragile. The whole thing could so easily break . . .” He stared absently, like he very much would have liked to be the catalyst for something like that.

“OUR people, Olté. They’re yours too, you know.”

He glowered.

“Anyways, if it’s such a secret, how do you even know about it?” I asked.

“They told me. When I turned twelve. Don’t know why they didn’t do it sooner. I mean, they could’ve killed me for treason if they had.”

I hated when he talked that way. “Shut up.”

He grinned.

Stupid Olté. He wasn’t making things better. “Gah!” I said. “Even with that Melo-schmello thingy, you still could have told me! It’s not like they’d ever find out, right?”

“NO. WAY. You’d have let it slip for sure. AND gotten yourself killed. Like I’d risk that.” He shook his head. “I’m just glad you came here right away today. It would be so like you to do something irrational.”

“Irrational?”

“You know, like run to the children and blurt out everything. Then it would be ‘goodbye’ to the holiest of holy babes.” He drew his thumb along his throat. “Croak.”

I let out a crabby grumble. He wasn’t giving me much credit. After all, I’d kept our meetings secret for how long? Well . . . ‘secret’ was sort of an exaggeration. The two other people in the commune that knew just pretended not to notice because it made them uncomfortable.

I chewed my lip. He was studying me.

“So . . . you aren’t really mad at me, are you?” he said.

“Hmph!” I turned up my nose. I felt like being bratty. Mainly because I’d feel stupid and self-conscious otherwise.

“Come on, Ash,” coaxed Olté. “You know you’re in the wrong here.”

It was true. He’d done the right thing. But I wouldn’t let him know that.

“Fine,” I said, sulking. “Even though you’re awful, I’ll forgive you . . . IF you let me see it.”

“It?”

“You know.” I pointed.

“Forget it!” He brought both hands to his eyepatch.

But those were my terms. His right eye – I wanted to see it more than anything. That was the reason for everything – his exile; why he wasn’t counted as one of us; the reason we had to sneak our friendship.

“Then I’m leaving and you won’t be seeing me again for at least a week!” I said.

“Okay,” he said, saluting. “See ya!”

I snarled and marched to the door. He said nothing until I put a hand on the knob. At that point, he let out a grumble. “Wait.”

I smiled to myself and turned slowly back to him. “Yes?”

He frowned.

“YES?” I said again.

“Fine.”

I blinked. It had worked? Really? My face lit up. Awesome! I’d only gotten to see his forbidden eye once before, and that had been an accident. Another of my intrusive bargings.

“Wonderful,” I said, more than pleased with myself.

Olté groaned. “Why, Ash? Why that? It’s gross.”

“It’s NOT gross. It’s . . .”

But, sighing, he didn’t wait for me to find a word for the patched thing. He walked to the edge of his bed, took a seat, and patted the space next to him. I vehemently plopped down.

“Easy, spazoid!”

“I can’t help it.”

“You get worked up about the strangest things.”

He was stalling. I urged him along.

“WELL?”

“Fine. Fine,” he said. And, slower than I’d have liked, he brought his hands to the back of his head and began to undo the tie. A moment later, the patch fell onto his lap, but his right eye remained closed.

“Open it,” I ordered.

He rolled his left eye, but he was only half-convincing. He was . . . nervous? That was stupid. He was stupid.

“Tch. It’s not like I’ll think less of you or anything,” I said.

“I know. But anyone else would. You’re broken.”

It hurt a little, though I tried not to let it show. “Or maybe the rest of them are broken,” I said. “Maybe we’re the only two that aren’t.”

“Heh.” He liked that. And, cautiously, he allowed his lid to rise.

I gasped.

It wasn’t a bad gasp, but Olté flinched anyway, so I brought my hand to his cheek and pulled his face closer so that I could take in all the secrets of his right eye. I bored mine deeply into his and reached for the forbidden tones hidden there. His left eye was blue. Like mine. Like everyone’s. But his right eye? His right eye was–

“Olté! It’s–!”

“An abomination,” he mumbled. He dropped it to the safety of the floor.

“No!” I seized his other cheek so that he’d look at me. The taboo iris was green. Bright green and flecked with pieces of amber. “No,” I said again. I shook my head. “It isn’t anything like that, Olté. It’s . . . so beautiful.”

The word hit him like energy and made both eyes widen. At that time, I didn’t understand why. I just continued to study the intricacy of his right eye more deeply than ever. But he was staring at me for a different reason.

“Ash?” He gulped.

“Hm?”

“Hurry and grow up a little bit more, would you?” he whispered.

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