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Chapter 68

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 6 years, 3 months ago

My mind had been wrestling with numbers ever since we got here. It was like a terrible itch which only got worse when I walked through the rear entrance. Just how much money had been funneled into this remote getaway? My eyes had been treated to the sight of hand carved columns of hardwood that support the walls and roof. And that was just me walking through the door. Each one was imported and had been dragged up this mountain because there was only pine for as far as the eye could see. All the stones were smooth cut, and the wooden floorboards never creaked. The ceilings were high, and the insides of the villa were overtly spacious. This wasn't some townhouse nor simple country house. Someone built this place for peak opulence. Just being inside its walls and knowing it is here for us to do with as we wish haunted me with an insidious pang of guilt.

 

My body, however, was far too weary for that to be the dominant feeling churning inside me. My nerves and muscles were so snarled, frayed, twisted and worn. I've been dead tired for days. I was only a few hard knocks away from being broken, so the atmosphere of this oasis was a god send. The very air felt as though it was healing me. A rogue thought in the back of my head kept calling out for attention. It screamed that I should be cautious and that I should continue to keep on guard. It didn't care in the slightest that my stretched nerves could snap at any moment. Besides, my senses were nothing compared to the girls, so I decided to put my trust in them.

 

They are better canaries in the mine shaft than I ever would be. I'd stop worrying about imminent death, and worse, for now. Now was the time to recover. It was time to take a deep breath and debate all my options. We have only just enough time to get comfortable before we have to move out again. There is a wide world out there, and most of it has proven itself unfriendly... To say the least... But I'd forget about the rest today. I can offer myself that one tiny luxury. If they were all in agreement that we were safe for the moment, we were. Period.

 

When I brought my mind back from out of the clouds, I heard the sound of a heated argument in some far away corner of the villa. How heated? It must be bouncing off and passing through half a dozen walls to reach my ears. The more I listen, the more it sounded like a lecture than an argument. I could make out Susan's haughty and irate voice. It was laden with castigation and a tinge of fury. Every so often I heard the rare murmur of someone else's voice. Rose was laughing and retorting back. My guess is that Susan's warpath led her to the pantry or cellar which Rose had been plundering unchecked for the past fifteen or so minutes. I'm just going to steer clear of that mess.

 

As I continued to walk the halls I studied the art and decorations. There was no shortage of oil paintings, and while I couldn't possibly know their true value, it had to be astronomical. One in particular caught my eye: a wide panoramic view of an ancient looking city. A romantic painting with hard colors. A Roman like ruin rising out of the plains and built upon a bunch of isolated hills. It was separated from the world as it stood behind massive walls. Two bright lights illuminate the landscape: one being the sun and the other a heavenly host traversing the sky on top the clouds far above the city. Angels, cherubs and the source of the second light, a massive nine point golden star. The radiant and impressive halo behind it gave its identity away immediately.

 

When I looked closer at the city, I noticed there was whole other city growing out from within it. Wooden thatched roofs and the like sprung up from the collapsing stone ruins. It all seemed so appropriate given everything I've seen of this world so far. It was as though a civilization was growing within the confines of a predecessor’s skeletal corpse. The painting did not seem that old, so I suppose it is a recent depiction of wherever this was. The artist's intention was probably elsewhere, but what I saw is a microcosm that explained what this whole Empire is about.

 

It's not the obvious homage to the one they call 'The Almighty' that has caught my mind's eye; it's the massive monuments that could never be built by the Empire. Towers that loom high above the city and rival the skyscrapers I am more familiar with. Palaces, temples, fortresses and more... they look as though each has been preserved through eons. There are layers to this world I cannot begin to understand. But therein lies the problem. If there were clues to how and why I am here and why I can't remember who I am, who I was... The answers to those mysteries are locked within walls like those in the painting. From a time long forgotten. Just like the illustrations in that book Susan found back in that library weeks ago.

 

     “Times long forgotten, huh?” my voice utters aloud.

 

There's nothing to be gained from thinking too hard about it. I've learned that much this spring. But I'm enjoying the relaxation of exercising my gray matter instead of my red matter. My arms and legs feel like they are one fire and my knees and back feel forty years too old. I've been waging my own little war inside my head for some time now. Tossing a few bread crumbs for the stray thoughts was a good way to keep them occupied. And distracted. What has torn my mind apart isn't just some case of a bump on the head amnesia. When I try to fish around for memories it isn't like I'm stumbling through the fog and hoping I'll bump into something. No, I keep following worn trails on a clear day which lead to the sea. But what I had once built on that coast has been eroded away, reclaimed by the dark blue waters. What lies beyond those water, or under the waves, I don't know. I probably shouldn't ever know, if I knew what was good for me. Sadly, given where I am now, I'm not even smart enough for that.

 

...I can picture a skyscraper in my head. All the steel, glass and concrete is as clear a memory to me as the hardwood of this villa. When I try to imagine myself standing in front of one, or in one, I cannot recall a single thing. My memories are just a collection of 'things'. Where I should be in them, there are only holes. It is as if I were a ghost in all of them.

 

There's an image of a four wheeled cart in my head. It sits on rubber wheels, and its body is made of steel and fiberglass. Inside, there's an engine that turns tiny explosions into mechanical energy. That spins the wheels, and the whole thing moves. I can imagine it all. I see it as clearly as I would a horse-drawn carriage. But try as I might, I cannot see myself inside one. I cannot recall a single memory of myself behind the steering wheel, nor can I recall something traumatic like almost being hit by one. You typically don't forget something like that. I know that world is there. It is. It must be. That world of mine is real, or I'm crazy. But this kind of crazy is far too lucid.

 

My heart starts beating faster in my chest. I can feel my breathing slowly going out of control as I meander through the empty spacious halls of the villa. A thousand thoughts and doubts are at the gates of my psyche once again. Just what would I be doing now if things had gone just a little differently? If I ignore the orcs, the amazons... Even Rose... Where would I have ended up? Would I be bouncing off the walls of some other villa as I stride quickly through its hallways? No, I doubt that. Would I have stumbled upon civilization at all? Perhaps I'd just starve and dehydrate in the wilderness. Would I have gotten cholera and died miserably in the forest of the Northern Wastelands? Maybe I'd stumble upon a farm and be forced to till the fields for some shitty pebble laden bread to eat? More than likely I'd end up as one of this shiftless vagabonds held up in a church's boarding house.

 

Maybe if I got my hands on some copper and zinc I could set up the most basic of electrochemical cells. When you're in doubt, invent electricity... Then again, there are people in this world who can just wiggle their fingers and produce bolts of lightning from their hands. If I got unlucky, maybe I'd end up burned at the stake instead of just being laughed at. It all just added to the feeling that I don't belong here. A feeling that makes me certain these rogue thoughts could never have formed from just observing this world.

 

Before I knew it, I had found my way outside. The cool mountain air tickled my sinuses and calmed my soul. I had been just short of running, but I returned to a more leisurely gait. I passed through a covered boardwalk that appeared to lead to a separate building. It looked just as fanciful on the outside, but when my curiosity lead me inside, I saw how bare bones and utilitarian it truly is. There were no fancy rugs, art or decorations. The floorboards were softwood as was the entire interior. Rooms which were dedicated bedrooms were filled with bare bone bunk-beds and little room for personal effects. A common room was no more impressive; the whole side house was unimpressive. It was a stark comparison to the halls which I had walked through before. That's how this world works though. My memories of that demon realm we passed through weeks ago appears less atrocious every time I bear witness to places like this.

 

It was just the servant's house. Only there were no servants. That was for the better. I'm sure they'd just flee in a panic if they had stayed behind. At least they gave the whole place one last clean before they left.

 

I continued through the house until I came, at last, upon the single largest room in the building. Counters, furnaces, shelves, cabinets, hearths and the like populated it. A wafting scent was doomed to overflow from the room and strike me with great force the moment I had opened the door. Spices. Dozens of spices from countless jars arrayed neatly everywhere in the room. It muffled the scent of spoiling meat stored in the closets. Enough seemed to be already salted and dried, but the place had definitely been restocked before our arrival. This is an age before refrigeration after all. It seemed a magic item to keep things cool was either out of the budget, or the person who would be in charge of maintaining it wouldn't fit on the pay roll.

 

But I couldn't stop thinking about the smells. I could pick out bay leaves, cayenne, cinnamon, pepper, rosemary, thyme, salt and more. I suppose there wasn't an Ottoman Empire sitting between this Empire and half the world's spices. All the luxuries of the world seemed to be concentrated in this one location. But there was also the fact that these plants, or ones exactly like them, existed in this place at all. I had taken humans and human-like creatures for granted, but when I thought about it, it was just too absurd a coincidence. Yet the spices were enough to bring tears to my eyes. Every sniff I took caused emotions to bubble up from inside me. I had to take a few deep breaths to calm myself. Why was this happening now? Even now my hands were shaking and my heart rate had increased. I had just escaped this feeling only a few minutes ago, but it was back again.

 

Scent is linked strongly to memory. I know that much. The olfactory bulbs are right next to the amygdala, so one smell can bring about a rush of vivid memories. Emotional memories. But there was something missing. Rather, everything was missing. It wasn't a wall I could break through or scale; it was an abyss that every smell was driven into then never seen again. There was a feeling but no substance to be found. I was on the verge of a memory. Yet there was nothing, not fog obscuring something. It had been torn out completely.

 

I was being overwhelmed by compulsion. I obsessively paced the kitchen and started gathering various utensils and containers. Flour, salt, fresh eggs. A coping mechanism for the stress? I found a whole side of beef which was quite fresh and barely spoiled at all. I gathered container after container off the shelves. Time seemed to slip away from me. Flour with the salt. Add the eggs and mix. Knead the result. I reached for a knife from an assortment of them. I held the knife tentatively on the surface of the beef I had gathered. My hands paused, but I took a deep breath to calm myself, and I sink the steely edge into the flesh and begin to separate it from the bone. I trust myself over to a feeling and let my conscious mind slip away for a time.

 

There was no earthly way of knowing what I was doing or where I was going. The smell of a spice cocktail was driving me onward. I looked over the dormant fuel within the furnaces and hearths. Primitive ovens and stoves. An apparatus that I can hang a large black cauldron from. Boiling water and a crackling flame underneath. An oven and stove heating the gray stones to a dull orange. I seized fresh greens resting in still partially chilly spring water then broke and chopped them up. The dough I had forgotten about... My hands made sheets as I pounded and thinned it against the counter. Something was coming together.

 

A sizzle of meat caught my attention, and I rushed over to browning beef in the furnace. It was covered in a mixture of spices, and dripped over it was a golden honey-like sauce. I pulled it carefully from the glowing stones, and my hands were a flurry of activity. It was instinctual. Memories from my muscles and a feeling all alone spurred me onward. It was as though I were painting something from memory. Layers of cut dough and uncooked meat. Rolled into balls and pressed shut then boiled and fried. A cheese wheel I grated and shredded. The smell of spices, wine, oils, roasted meat, boiled and fried dough filled the kitchen. Before I knew it, I finally stopped, and the counters were covered with food. It caused my own mouth to salivate.

 

My eyes drifted upward at last to the entrance of the kitchen and standing there watching me were Susan's red eyes. There was a slight smile on her face, but her eyes were wistful. It was a complex expression on her face. When our eyes met, they didn't look into each other right away, but very quickly she realized I was no longer in a trance. She blushed and looked away briefly before regaining her composure and making eye contract once again.

 

     “...What time is it?” I asked.

 

     “The sun has just set, Laven,” She responds.

 

Given how low the sun was in the sky when I got here, two... maybe even three hours have slipped away from me.

 

     “I dared not interrupt you. You appeared possessed... Determined.”

 

     “You might say that,” I sigh as I slump down on a chair behind me.

 

A few awkward moments pass. I breathe deeply and stare downward at the wet, flour-covered floor. The sound of claws, Susan's paws, clacking against stone emanate as she approaches. She stands beside me, her eyes study the steaming entrees arrayed on the counter and her dainty nose sniffs the aroma wafting from each full bowl, plate and platter. Susan's cheeks turn an even deeper shade of red while her eyes moisten and glisten ever so slightly. I expected that her tongue might even escape her mouth as her eyes keenly study what lie before them. She turns her eyes back toward me with a tinge of excitement in them.

 

     “I am unfamiliar with this school of- Laven. Perhaps you remembered-?”

 

     “No,” I grumbled. “Not a memory. Just a feeling. A powerful feeling but just a feeling all the same. I got one whiff and look at this kitchen, and something tried to reach out to something else... Except there was nothing there to reach.”

 

A black fuzzy paw came to rest on my shoulder. It firmly and confidently grabs hold as it tries to reassure me.

 

     “Nevertheless,” Susan warmly says. “It is still feasible to reach out. There may yet be something to discover. If only from 'feelings'... But it is late. Although we need not now concern ourselves with the dilemma of tonight's feast, I suggest we do not hesitate for long.” She lets go of my shoulder and walks toward the entrance while her voice becomes burdened by exasperation. “I had to exert a great deal of effort to keep that beastly woman from this place before you were finished. I am not confident I could do so for much longer. Come now. I spied you earlier, and while you were unresponsive, I had the foresight to prepare a table.”

 

While I watched Susan's back and happily swishing tail disappear through the door and down the hallway I found myself slightly uplifted. I suppose we'd have a proper dinner for once. Some carbohydrates and greens instead of the strict protein diet of wild game. With a slight smile on my face, I gathered all the plates on a trolley and made my way in the direction that Susan had strolled away, deeper into the servant's house.

 

When I caught up with the anubis, she was standing and presiding over a small square table with five chairs. Placemats with cutlery, glasses and wine from the cellar were spread out in a precise and perfectly uniform manner. Susan gracefully waved her paw to the table. She invited me to leave the trolley behind and take my seat. Before I could make a move though, something barreled into the room behind me.

 

Someone who obnoxiously sniffed the air in tandem to the crackle of seething flame. Blissful hums and singsong chipper tunes escaped her lips while a profound blush spread across her cheeks.

 

     Rose gasped with delight as a trail of drool escaped the corner of her mouth, “What is THIS?”

 

She was beaming with delight as she held her claws together and leaned over the trolley of food. Her thick, red and armored tail swished behind her, and embers were spit and thrown in all directions from her tail's ridge of flame. Luckily, each ember harmlessly came to rest on the ground, furniture and walls. They snuffed themselves out and faded from existence on their own instead of lighting the whole room on fire. I don't think Susan had called for her. More likely, as soon as the food left the confines of the kitchen she had smelled it and came running from wherever she was in the villa.

 

     Susan puffs her chest out with pride, “Tonight's meal is provided by none other than our own precious Laven, and- Hey!”

 

Rose's hand, maybe unconsciously maybe not, was reaching out to start feasting right then and there and only stopped when Susan's paw slapped it away. The sound of it alone hurt, and Rose pulls back her claw with a yelp. She turns toward Susan with an indignant expression of protest on her face, which then softens as what Susan had said finally sinks into her thick skull.

 

     “He did?” She then turns toward me and asks again. “You did?”

 

I nod. Rose beams an ear-fin to ear-fin smile and throws her weight into me at full force. The only reason I'm not bowled onto the floor is because her arms, and whole body, wrap around me and hold me up. She stands on the tips of her talons and rubs her cheek against mine making blissful and cute noises while she does so. I quickly feel the heat rush from her body into mine as I feel her excitement and happiness boil over and into me as something more tangible.

 

While Susan is forced to watch helplessly, the other two girls meander into the room at the same time. Minte's usual deadpan expression softens for a mere moment. Her mouth goes slightly agape while her eyes widen in surprise. A long 'ooooh' escapes from her lips as she is obviously impressed by the spread of food prepared before her. Chris—who finally emerged from her hiding hole at last—casts her eyes around as well. They do exactly the same as she nearly does a double take... Except the lower half of her face is still covered by that white scarf, and only muffled sounds of whatever words or sounds she makes can be heard.

 

     “Yes yes,” Susan says, clapping her paws together to get everyone's attention. “The meal will not remain warm into posterity, very much unlike particular hot heads... Be seated so that we shall begin.”

 

Once more she waves her paw toward the two chairs sharing the same side of the table facing toward us. One of them already decorated with the wine and glass she had been using previously on the back porch.

 

     “Right this way, Laven-”

 

     “Hey!” Rose shouts out as she finally separates from me.

 

I take a huge gasping breath after being nearly crushed and suffocated for almost half a minute.

 

     “What do you think you are doing?” Her expression is dire and accusatory as she thrusts an extended index talon at Susan.

 

     “Please take your seat elsewhere, Rose.”

 

     “You can't tell me what to do... You picked a small table on purpose didn't you!”

 

     “Rose... Please cease being so childish for one moment so that we might-”

 

     “Don't try and talk down to me like that now. This is all a set up!”

 

     “Yes. I set the tables and have already taken my seat. Now kindly take yours and-”

 

Without another word, Rose bounds forward and reaches out for the back of Susan's chair. The anubis is not dissuaded by the salamander on a warpath and, since she was already there, has more than enough time to firmly grip the chair's back as well. They each pull the poor wooden chair toward themselves as it creaks under the pressure of being pulled in two opposite directions. Realizing the chair will break if they use any more strength, the chair hovers between them at a stalemate. Their eyes turn from the chair and to each other.

 

     “Dirty tricks!” Rose growls in protest.

 

     “Let... go and be... seated.” Susan snarls back while struggling against Rose's superior strength, the previous calmly diplomatic and paternally chastising tone in her voice now all but gone.

 

Their foreheads collide and grind against one another as sparks collide in the midst of their death glares at one another. Meanwhile, Minte and Chris circle around with whatever plates and bowls they can manage to carry and place on the table and take the seats adjacent. That leaves only the spot on the opposite side of the table. They remain silent and try their best to blend into the background as the battle rages on.

 

     “I have already claimed this seat, you oaf.” Susan growls with her canine teeth now flaring.

 

     “You can move em,” Rose hisses back.

 

     “I set the table. Therefore, I get to be seated where I desire.” Susan childishly snaps back.

 

     “You never told me you were setting any table. You said you spotted a feisty looking ice golem in the hills looking for a fight... There was no such thing!”

 

     “There was so; you just laggard the climb up the mountain!”

 

Ooooh~... So that's how she dealt with Rose for so long. Anyways, I can't let this continue on forever. I sigh in resignation and walk around to the other side of the table to take the uncontested seat for myself.

 

     “Ah!” Rose and Susan grunt at the same time as they both look in my direction.

 

I glare back at them with the best 'I'm very disappointed' expression I can muster. Their furious and then surprised expressions turn into dejected and ashamed frowns before they flare back up into anger when their eyes meet again. Thankfully they keep the peace enough to leave it at that as they take the seats next to one another. Neither breaks their death stare as they slowly pull the two chairs out seat themselves.

 

     “Laven... Laven.” A faint voice calls out to my left.

 

I look over toward Minte; it was a rare event to hear her speak at all. Then I hear the sound of something much less uncommon. A snick as one of her arm blades snaps into place. It flies in my direction and secures into place only ten centimeters from my face. I nearly fall backward out of my chair when I flinch in a panic... But stuck on the tip of her long green chitinous blade is a large hunk of meat. It was cut from the rest of the fillet in an impressive perfect square.

 

     “Aaaaaah.” She says in nearly a whisper with her jaw hanging low.

 

I reach up with my fork to take it, but she pulls it away. When I lower my fork she moves her blade back into place. She lets out another noise like before while I fidget and stare at the odd girl for a few seconds more. Finally I get an idea what she's after. I lean over and take the meat off the tip of her blade with my teeth. It's a little too big for me to even start chewing, but I still try all the same. With my cheeks nearly fully puffed out, I begin trying to chew. I struggle, and surely fail, to give her a genuine nod of thanks. She buys it with a faint smile on her lips. Minte's face even beams, just a bit, then she focuses on her own meal.

 

While I struggle to chew on what amounts to a very flavorful sock in my mouth, I turn an eye to the now silent Chris. I'm surprised to see that she is actually staring right at me, but as soon as our eyes meet, hers dart away. Chris hasn't even removed the scarf; she just pulled it up far enough so that it wouldn't block her mouth. It's still wrapped around her nose and cheeks like an impressively failed bandanna.

 

With her three talons at the end of her wing's forearms, she skewers the meat filled dough balls and pops them into her mouth. Her eyes rolled away from me and look in the opposite direction. Every so often she looks back into my eyes but just as suddenly looks away again. She seems more and more agitated each time she does this. I don't know why she doesn't just stop. Eventually she begins to start missing the food that she has been is plucking from the center of the table entirely. She's not even looking at what she's doing anymore in a desperate attempt to avoid eye contact altogether. I give up and look elsewhere before she breaks something. There's something squirrelly up with this girl. When I get the chance, I'm going to get to the bottom of it.

 

     “Yipe!” a pained cry escapes from Susan as she nearly leaps from her chair. “Cease stomping your heel talon on my paw at once!”

 

     “Not my fault,” Rose says sardonically. “I didn't set the table with no room to- oomph!” She is cut off suddenly when Susan's elbow collides with side.

 

The dinner was good; the company was pleasant, but the manners were severely lacking. But as far as dinner goes with these girls... this was by far dominating the positive highlight reel. Sad as it is I have to think that.

 

When the meal was done, and every last morsel was gone, I was forbidden from helping put everything away. I suppose they felt guilty that I had gone and done so much on my own. There was going to be no complaining from me though. I'm tired. Dead tired. I just want to collapse on a bed right now and not arrange a morning wake up call. So that's just what I did. While the girls were busy, I made my way back to the villa. I explored the second story of the main villa where all the bedrooms and bathrooms—more like chamberpot rooms—were arranged. I was far too tired to bathe, and I had already shed my layers of muck in the lake, so I staked claim to the best bed I could find.

 

Mattresses and pillows filled with down instead of straw. Supportive and finely crafted wooden frames. Sheets and covers made with the finest fibers. If it just had springs, I could swear it was like any other bed back home. All I have to do is just shed my clothes and... A rustle and clatter near the door pulls me from my fantasy. It appears I'm not going to rest as easily as I had hoped.

 

When I turn toward the door frame, I spy Rose and Susan grinding together, shoulder to shoulder, while they both try getting in through the door at the same time. They bicker and argue quietly among themselves with hushed voices until they finally notice I'm looking right at them.

 

     “Not tonight,” I say shaking my head.

 

     “You heard him,” Rose tells the anubis beside her, turning her head with a grin. “You can beat it for tonight.”

 

     “What did you just-” Susan growls back.

 

     “All of you,” my voice comes out sternly. “I'm dead tired. I need at least ONE good night's sleep.” I emphasize with one rigidly raised index finger.

 

This kind of thing had been happening for weeks. The bedrolls would be laid out around the campfire, but they'd always at some point pile on me. It was like a scene straight from The Three Stooges. Everyone tried to get in at the same time, so no one got anywhere. But all the same, I would wake up, sometimes several times a night, with all of them crowded around me. They were always laying partially on top of me, beside me or some part of me was resting on any part of them. I needed a break from that tonight.

 

It seems the tone in my voice was enough though. It pained to see the look on their faces because I'm too much of a kind hearted wimp for my own good, but they did relent and dejectedly scurry away with their tails hanging low. But I still had to go over to the curtains by the window and pull them open. Hidden behind them was the green assassin. She kept still with an emotionless face; pretending as if I hadn't actually seen her because she hadn't even flinched yet, let alone blink. I look down and speak directly to her. Frankly, with the same tone in my voice I used when I spoke to the other two.

 

     “I said, 'all of you'.”

 

Because it's now painfully obvious her hiding had failed, she leaves just as dejected as the other two. She opens the window up and then slips back out, practically slithering along the walls the whole way. When the window clicks shut I close the curtains, lock the window and walk over to the bed. I'm too tired to even shed my clothes now. I just crawl over the fluffy sheets and lay my back on top of them. Now... I just hope I can-

 

***

 

I open my eyes. The oaken ceiling I remember residing above me just a moment ago is gone. A floating sensation has replaced the sinking feeling of falling deeper into the bed I had just been laying in. The light from the stars and moon are nowhere to be seen. I can't even spy a glimmer of candlelight. Panic almost grips me right away, but I feel as though this inky darkness is familiar to me. It's not from a lack of light; I can see my hand the rest of my body with ease. Turns out I had nothing to worry about when the darkness gives way to a world of billowing gray mist. My feet gently find the ground without me hitting it at terminal velocity. I'm sure I've seen a scene like this before, but I cannot put my finger on it.

 

The swirling gray mists eventually turn from a gaseous form into quivering walls of liquid before becoming solid. They form into a rather spacious room. I spy refrigerators, ovens, stoves, pots, pans and an arsenal of cooking utensils. In the distance where the whole world seems to waver and transition back into liquid and mist, silhouettes of people form. They make noise, and what they speak I cannot make out exactly. Who I can make out clearly are two people taking form before my very eyes. While the rest of the world retains a bleak gray color, these two people, one a child and another a rather large beer gutted man, take form.

 

     “Well, kid. I know it ain't no vacation, but we can still make the best of it. I promised your old man I'd watch you for the summer, but I still gotta work too.”

 

The man speaks before he has fully formed. I can pick out an accent in his voice before I can even see his face. At last the man's gaseous and liquid form solidifies and becomes rich with vivid color which spills out from him and colors the area around him as well. I'm tall enough to spot the bald spot on the top of his head as I stand beside him, but he still towers over the child standing before him. He has a large girth to him with greasy, slightly tanned skin. The hair from his head seemed to have emigrated to the rest of his body, and it contrasts with the white clothes he wears. The more they take shape, the more I realize it to be a classic chef's uniform. In his fat round head, a pair of brown eyes look down kindly upon the boy.

 

I recognize the boy immediately. That boy is... me. His eyes look dejected, and they refuse to look the round middle aged man in the eye. He looks depressed; a boy that couldn't be any older than twelve. The boy's sour temper doesn't stop the man though. He kneels down so that he can look at the kid at his eye level.

 

     “I think I know what the boss is after. And believe me, we can make it a summer worthwhile. What do ya say?”

 

The kid doesn't flinch or say anything back. The man just takes a spare chef's hat and throws it on top of the kid's head, but he refuses to leave it at just that.

 

     “One day the old man is gonna wanna retire. Pretty sure he's just leaving it all 'ta you. The land and places he owns. If that's how it's gonna be, then you better know how it's done, right?”

 

The boy still doesn't react.

 

     “I wouldn't work for the man if I didn't respect what he can do. I'd still be a stubborn fucking mule back in Messina cooking meals no further than two kilometers where mia madre popped me out. Now I'm head chef for one of the Big Apple's top ten restaurants! That's what I like about the man. Takes risks. Trusts people. Would rather start up a new place than buy a yacht or something... Really, I'm surprised he didn't just stick you in a boarding school or something instead.”

 

     “...Says kids who go to schools like that don't learn about the real world,” The boy finally speaks.

 

     The man's face turns into a huge smile after getting the kid to show he's alive, “Damn right! That sounds like him... Known him for twenty years now; he's a friend of mine, so stop worrying yourself...” He looks left and right then puts both his hairy hands on the boy's shoulders. “I got a daughter about your age too. We'll all get together when I'm off on weekend.”

 

     A voice from the shades in the distance calls out, “Stop pimping your girl out Vinnie.”

 

     A chorus of laughter erupts from the four corners of the kitchen while another shouts out, “Get your retirement plan sorted out somewhere other than work, boss.”

 

'Vinnie' seems to have a rather good nature, I deduce, considering what was just said to him. He just smiles before faking an angry face as he removes his hands from the boy's shoulders, stands up and shouts back at the other chefs.

 

     “If ya got time to talk shit, you had better be using to get those bases ready before dinner rush!”

 

The shades of the other chefs share another laugh and go back to work. Vinnie turns back to the boy with a smile still on his face.

 

     “She's a sweet thing... And one day she's gonna be on magazines. Just you all watch and see!” He says while shouting the last bit to all the other chefs.

 

But there's a little sadness that gets through his fake smile when he turns back to the boy.

 

     “Not many friends though... So, if you can count on me ta show you the ropes and a bit of uncle Vinnie's prize wisdom, ya'll be nice. Deal?”

 

     “Yeah. As soon as they let her out of juvie that is,” One errant chef jokes back.

 

Vinnie back stiffens, and his face twists just hearing those words. His hand instinctively reaches for a nearby butcher's cleaver. His expression is menacing as he turns his back away from the boy and toward the mocking voices.

 

     “That's my step daughter, Jennie, from a short lived second marriage... And I'll say this just once. If I hear one of you fucking punks shit talk my little Angela again... I'll chop your cock off and feed it to ya!”

 

With a thunderous thud he slams the cleaver deep into a wooden chopping board. The banter and din of the kitchen dies immediately. Even I jump, and I'm as good as a ghost in this place.

 

     “Filet migdong! Capisce!?”

 

No one says a word. Every chef in the kitchen stands still and is petrified. I cannot see their faces; I don't know if they are scared or just going through the usual motions, but they eventually get back to work. This time without the banter. 'Uncle' Vinnie turns back to the boy with another smile on his face as though that all didn't just happen. It doesn't really need to be said, but the boy looks as though he pissed himself.

 

     “First piece of advice,” Vinnie says, his voice trying to play it comically. “No matter how depressed and messed up you are after your first divorce, and no matter how fine you think a girl looks when she's young and already has a kid; you figure out if she's only just six months out of rehab."

 

Vinnie turns away and while gathering some ingredients. He doesn't bother with the knife and leaves it where it is. Perhaps as a warning to all the other chefs who may think it is safe to joke around about what the man holds very dear to him. Perhaps the only thing he does care about aside from his job.

 

     He mutters once more under his breath, "Fucking social services. Bunch of fucking bureaucratic shit heads."

 

Even though there's no one else to see it, my head leans back on its own. As though the weight of what he just said hit my full force in the face. I think Vinnie has had a hard life.

 

Slowly, the kitchen begins to disintegrate, and the solid parts of it turn back into liquid then a gas. The mists swirl, and the scene changes. Trees, paved paths, small man-made lakes appear one by one. The draw distance of the scene reaches far and wide and only just ends at the massive buildings towering in the distance at every direction I look. Dozens... Hundreds of near formless shades meander through the gray park, but there is one spot of color that stands out like a sore thumb. Three people are walking together in the shade of all the trees. They color the immediate area they stroll through, even if that color does vanish after they pass by.

 

They are quite far away, and I have to pass through the infinite misty crowds of shades to reach them. I dare to even walk on the surface of one lake to catch up with them. It's a thrilling experience to be sure, and it even feels more real and vivid than any old dream. When I reach the other shore, I spot Vinnie walking hand in hand with a little girl on his left and with the boy, a younger me, walking on his right. The boy still looks rather dejected; he doesn't even take hold of the man's greasy and sweaty hand. The girl had to be Angela. Her expression was difficult to judge, partly because it was mostly hidden behind a hoodie. The whole scene could've otherwise looked like some sort of sweet, yet twisted, family image if you changed just a few things.

 

They stop at a booth selling ice cream cones before they come to rest at a park bench. Except for Vinnie's loud mouth, no one speaks at all, and it's all rather awkward. That doesn't stop the fat chef wearing a track suit from smiling ear to ear. His face only twists into something other than a smile when an antiquated cell phone rings in his pants pocket. Vinnie answers it foully, but quiet enough for the children to not hear. He fawns over his daughter and stays within sight to make the call. A joke is made about calling on the boy's manhood to look out for her before he strays far enough away from earshot, and the two children sit on the bench by themselves.

 

The boy hasn't changed at all, save the lack of a hairnet and other sanitary clothing. Just a pair of simple beige cargo shorts, a white t-shirt and running shoes. The girl seated next to him though, I wasn't sure what to expect from Vinnie's ranting, but I have to confess he wasn't too far off. She couldn't be any older than ten and looked rather girly with a purple hoodie, white tights, red short skirt and little brown dance shoes. Her hood was pulled over her head, but a long and thick platinum blonde braid was draped over her shoulder and hanging down past her waist through the neck of the hoodie as she sat there.

 

When I looked at Vinnie, I had a hard time seeing the relation between father and daughter, but when I got a look at her face, the brown eyes gave it away. Everything else about her departed from her father though. She was small, and she was skinny. Her father might even be right about the magazine bit. With how her face is built now, she might just—she may have already grown up into a beautiful woman. Except there was a peculiar thing about that face of hers. She had a certain aura about her. I could see it from looking at her, and I could feel it from the boy who sat uncomfortably beside her.

 

Some peculiar characters were also on that purple hoodie. They looked like cartoon characters. Young girls, princesses of all types. Except that for the part where they were frilly and gaily dressed, yet seemed more prepared for battle than the ball. I think it might just say something about the girl herself, but I think I'd soon find that out the moment she started talking.

 

     “Say...” Angela says, her voice sounding bored and monotonous but loud and crystal clear, “What's a marriage?”

 

I didn't have to do anything; the boy did it all for me. The question out of left field caused him to cough and spray his ice cream cone all over the pavement. The girl's eyes do not for a single second let up on the boy. Her big brown eyes pried at him with a fierce curiosity.

 

     “What?” The boy rightfully asks.

 

     “What's a marriage? Why do grownups have them?”

 

Vinnie's subtlety left something to be desired. Did he have a halfway talk with his daughter, and she took it a little too literally? The boy struggles to answer. We're the same person separated by only years, and even I'm not sure I could weather those eyes.

 

     “They do it because they love each other,” He answers with the safest choice.

 

     Her next question comes without so much as a pause, “Do we love each other?”

 

Another harsh curve ball.

 

     “What? No- I mean, I don't know. We met like thirty minutes ago.”

 

     “Hmm.” She hums while finally breaking her deathly and curious gaze.

 

I see the boy holding his hand over his chest trying to get his heart beat back in order. Then I can see it in his eyes. 'If she's gonna come back, I need to change the topic to something I can keep up with'.

 

     “I like your braid.” He says.

 

     “My mommy doesn't like it. Says it's too kiddy... Daddy likes it though. Mommy says Daddy spoils me too much. But I like Daddy more than Mark. Mark only likes Sara. Mommy likes her too. Sara doesn't like to play though. She's pretty mean. Doesn't like talking to me.”

 

She was so quiet before, but now a torrent of words pour from her mouth. The boy is overwhelmed and tries desperately to get a word in edgewise to have her stop.

 

     “You are a kid though,” The boy says.

 

     “Yeah.” She says, her train of thought performing a perfect hairpin turn as it keeps going. “Does that mean we can't get married?”

 

     “Why would you wanna do that?” The boy deftly tosses the question back like a hot potato.

 

     “Daddy says you gotta if you wanna be happy. But you gotta do it right... Or you end up like 'mommy'... I don't like Mark.”

 

     “Is Mark your new daddy?”

 

     “No. Daddy is Daddy. Mark is Mark.”

 

For the first time her face showed a human expression. She looked at the boy as if he had asked the stupidest question she had ever heard. The boy had been looking at the girl as though she were some kind of alien all this time, now replacing that confusion and unease was a little anger.

 

     “Marriage is when two people become mommy and daddy. That's what marriage is,” He answers sternly.

 

     “So you do what mommies and daddies do?”

 

     “Y-yes.”

 

     “Hmm.” She hums again, a sound she seems to make whenever she goes deep into thought.

 

Angela finally goes silent. The boy breathes a sigh of relief. But when he dares to take another look at the girl, Angela's open palm comes flying in at full force. It connects with the boy's face and catches him completely off guard. It takes me off guard. There's a resounding slap that carries far and wide. Even Vinnie hears it, and it tears him away from his phone call. The boy falls off the bench and hits the pavement. He doesn't hit it hard, nor does he look hurt. His wide eyed expression looks surprised more than anything. We both look at Angela at the same time with the same expression on our face. We are both treated to the girl's genuine pretty little smile. There isn't the slightest trace of malice in it.

 

The boy is still confused when Vinnie rushes over to make sure the two kids are alright. His spoiling nature comes through in that he doesn't get mad or even lecture the girl. At the same time he doesn't defend her. He desperately tries to get the boy to tell him if he's hurt or okay. The look of bewilderment on the boy's face is understandable. But I look at the girl, and now I see something profoundly tragic in her outburst. I dare not say it was even violent. Just terribly, terribly misinformed. The weight of that little moment hits my heart hard.

 

I ended up staring at the scene and forgot about the surroundings. The park and buildings in the distance were slowly melting away back into mist. Even Vinnie himself dissolved, but the two kids remained there in a world of nothing else but gray mist. They were both frozen in place, the girl with a blushing smile and the boy looking up at her with a profoundly confused expression.

 

The sound of an ear piercingly loud honking horn fast approaching from all directions ripped through the silence.

 

***

 

My back lifts off my bed, and a scream almost escapes my lips. I feel drenched, covered in a cold sweat. A pounding is out of control in my chest, and my breathing is heavy and rapid. I sit upright on the bed and panicked about nothing at all. I wipe my hand over my forehead and remove a layer of slimy wetness. It feels as though only a second had passed since I had suddenly drifted off to sleep. However, when I look at the candle next to my bed, it has long since melted to its brass holder and snuffed itself out. The room was completely dark, and I was alone.

 

Only the light from the moon and stars, shining without a cloud in the sky, allowed me to see anything at all. I laid back down to try going back to sleep, but every time I closed my eyes, they shot back open. I was now wide awake. I swore under my breath and flung my legs off the side of the bed and sat there.

 

With my head held in my hands, I tried to calm my still beating heart and out of control breaths. Something spooked me, but I didn't know what. I had just been in a dreamless sleep, so I didn't know what the hell was going on. It only frustrated me and made it impossible for me to focus and calm myself down.

 

When I held my breath to stop myself from panting, I heard a voice in the distance. A very soft, gentle and singing voice. I could not make out what it was saying, but there was no ignoring that it was there. Once I acknowledged it, it couldn't be unheard.

 

There was no way I was going back to sleep even though it was the middle of the night, so I dragged myself off my bed, slipped through the door and followed the voice coming far down the hall.

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