The printer was taking forever. It was only spitting out a page every five minutes, and I still had four more to go.
I had spent all of last night trying to convince Pearl that I could just send her the file. That way she wouldn’t have to lug around 30 pages of paper, and I wouldn’t have to go and buy ink for the printer that I hadn’t used in months.
“But I want to feel like I’m actually reading your book,” she said. “I want to hold your long-awaited words in my hands.”
So I spent all morning printing out each page and binding them together.
And then all day, lugging it around in my back pack. Until I got to work, and slid it into her locker with a post-it attached that said, “Here’s your hard copy, old man. You owe me $20.”
Giving Pearl a copy made me nervous. I wasn’t much worried that she wouldn’t like it, or that she wouldn’t want to read it all the way through. Pearl had always loved my stories, she had since I handed her the very first one.
It was a story about a princess and her Elephant, Eddie, and how much more efficient he could be than any dragon was. Princes and Knights spent their whole lives, training and fighting for the day that they’d be strong enough to come to the Princess’s “rescue”.
But the day would never come, because the princess liked her space and wanted to be left the hell alone. So she whispered different tactics of torture for the elephant, who had always resorted to death by stomp.
I was eight then, but already a psychopath. Small enough to be discouraged and readjusted. But Pearl and my mother ate it up, and they asked for more and more.
I read that story again during my break.
It’s the most horribly written thing I’ve ever read. I spelled Elephant like “elfant” the whole way through, and little me couldn’t seem to forget the word “and”.
Whatever Pearl and my mother had seen in my writing, I’ll never know.
But their words had sent a shot of lightning straight through me, and I haven’t stopped handing them stories since.
So no, this wasn’t fear of rejection or distaste.
It was the mortifying realization that I had just slipped a small piece of my soul into Pearl’s locker, and that once that lock clicked, I could not get it back.
I swallowed that fear and flipped around to clock in, stopped and shoved by a tower of moving boxes.
“Oh shit,” was all I heard before I hit the floor.
My head hit the tile without a crack, but I stayed still in case my skull changed it’s mind. I stared up as a flurry of arms grabbed at and around me, stacking boxes and attempting to pull me back up, making me stand much quicker than my body would have liked to.
I leaned and they let go, before someone else caught me inches above the floor.
“What the hell, Sammy?”
“I thought she was going to puke!”
“So you’re just gonna let her crack her skull open?” I looked up at Emilio. He looked funny from this angle. His mouth wide, his chin put out, yelling at Sammy.
Sammy is one of the other kitchen boys. He’s an idiot, so I’m not surprised that the minute he feared vomit, he threw me off. He was cradling his arms with a spatula still in his hand.
I started to laugh and both of them looked at me like I was crazy.
“Are you sure she hasn’t already,” Sammy asked.
“Shut up Sammy,” we barked in unison. Emilio’s eyes started to smile.
Sammy huffed away, kicking the boxes as he went, sending them flying again.
“Asshole,” I whispered.
Emilio set me upright and waited for me to steady myself before he let go.
“Welcome back, I guess.” He smirked as I rubbed my head, and we started stacking the boxes back up.
“You okay,” he asked after a while.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Sammy’s just-“
I smiled to myself. We always met like this, Emilio and I. Even the day I had broken down, we collided again.
He was rushing a box of buns to the kitchen and I was running out of the cash corner, and we clipped each other just hard enough to send everything flying again.
I was starting to pick everything up, stuffing down hiccups and snot, saving it all for the moment I got alone.
I could not let any of these people see me cry.
“I’m starting to think you’re doing this on purpose,” he had said.
I met his eyes and at my lip started to quiver. The tears poured out of me like my eyes were broken dams, and snot was gathering under my mask. Everything that had welled, released, and I was drowning in it.
All he said was, “Woah. I was just kidding.”
I got up and sprinted. I was hiccuping like a small child, and I needed to get out of there before anyone else could hear it.
He didn’t run after me. He just stacked up the boxes and went back, and I was glad he was gone. No one spoke to me again until Christina found me in between the racks and told me to go home.
He watched Pearl walk me to my car.
My smile must have flipped, because he wore the same expression now that he did when I cried.
“I heard Jemma’s going to fire him soon. Apparently he’s been giving people fries for free,” he tried.
“How does he do that from the kitchen?” I returned my smile and moved my eyes, back to the boxes.
We stood up together and he gave the stack an awkward pat before going, “Well, thanks,” and walking away.
Note to self: Don’t cry in front of Emilio again. The poor boy is terrified of human tears.
I rowed the last few miles, shrouded in heavy silence.
Elias sat beside me, crying to himself and apologizing.
I cupped his shoulders softly for a few seconds, but said and did nothing more.
I wasn’t the one he owed an apology to.
Penelope was holding Pear now. She was letting hot tears roll down her cheeks, letting harder looks slip past me, toward Elias.
After I saw land, they turned to look at me, each of them silent. That’s when Elias started up the sobbing again, and Pear turned back around.
“They’re alive,” she sobbed. “We’re going back for them.”
Pen steered her away, and they stayed in that spot beside the little ones for the rest of the ride.
Milo was still just singing. Not to Arlene, anymore. But to something the rest of us couldn’t see.
We hit the shore softly, and the village we landed on was just as quiet as the boat. Elias had composed himself, letting the last of Paraíso’s tears roll down his cheeks.
He cleared his throat. “I’ll go and check it out. See if anybody is here before the rest of us get off.” He turned back for a split second before cracking, “Milo, let’s go.”
“Elias, I don’t want-“
“I’ll go,” Pear demanded.
“You’ll kill him!” Pen was standing, her voice shrill. “You can’t go!”
“I’ll go,” I said.
Elias shook his head. “This is ridiculous, I wasn’t asking I was telling. Milo, let’s-“
“He’s scared, ass hat. He’s not going.” Ass hat. Pen had never said that word, ever. Pear was ruining her already.
“I’m going, Elias.” He furrowed his eyebrows at me, but didn’t say anything more. He turned and grabbed a fishing spear out of the boat, before hopping over the side and stomping his boots into the sand. I hopped out and grabbed one too.
He only turned back around to ensure that my shoes were crunching against the sand too.
“I’ll check the woods, you check the huts. Meet me back at the boat and tell me what you see.” I nodded and he walked off.
The houses almost looked like the ones at home. Small and squeezed together, all of them facing the ocean instead of each other, semi-circled around the remnants of a fire pit.
There were other remnants, too. On either side of the standing houses, were two houses collapsed in the shadows of smoke and ash. The black soot had touched the other houses, but for the most part, had left them alone.
Whatever had happened here, it wasn’t good. But it was all we had for now.
I picked up my pace to a jog and stopped at the first front door. It was a beautiful blue house, with a flower box just out of the first window, filled with dry dirt and nothing more.
Placing my spear behind my back, I knocked.
Pear and Pen could still see me from the boat, and I could feel their eyes move from me to the house.
I prayed that no one was in there, and I didn’t know why.
After a while, I turned the knob, and pressed the door open. It swung wide with a creak, and I stumbled back to let something out.
“A kitty!” Pen had screamed from the boat.
I could hear her and Pear scrambling out of the boat, as Milo screamed “Guys! Wait, don’t leave me here!”
They ignored him and kept running, while I walked back to put the spear down and switch it for Arlene.
“Come on, Milo. It’s safe in there. You and Arlene can start to pick out your sides of the room.” He grabbed my hand and stepped out of the boat, jumping down into wet sand and splashing himself in the face.
He giggled and became six again.
I left them in the blue house and checked the rest of them. Each hut had an old kitchen and living room, and a room to the side with a big bed each.
I decided that we’d split houses in work rooms and homes, until more people from Paraíso started finding their way here. Then we’d figure something out.
Elias came back and cleared the woods.
“There’s a few berry bushes over there, some roots we might be able to eat too. This spot shouldn’t be too bad.” His eyes had lost their gloss and his soul returned. But the second he turned to the boat, he dropped them again.
“Where’s the rest?”
“Your brother and sister are in the blue house. They’re cleaning it out for you guys. Pear and Pen went chasing a cat that had gotten in there. I really hope they don’t catch it. We don’t need another thing to watch.”
He stood by me and shifted his weight a little bit. “Oh. Yeah.”
I walked over to the boat and lifted up the ocean end, while Elias grabbed the other. We lifted it up and dropped it by the blue house.
“You need to tell her you’re sorry,” I said.
“Why? You know I’m right.”
“That’s not the point. She’s nine. They have to be alive.”
We sounded like bickering spouses, and that’s what we were now.
Heads of households at age twelve.
How absolutely horrifying for all involved.
“Ok. I’ll fix it.”
I have him a hug and pat his back once, before pulling away. “Thank you.”
We stared at each other, his eyes looking into mine like they always did. But I didn’t mind it so much anymore.
After everything that was taken, at least I still had that.
“Now, I’m going to go make sure they haven’t found that cat. You go and fix things with Milo, to. Him and Arlene need you.”
He watched me walk away, and I turned around once I reached the mouth of the woods.
“Go.” And he did.
The second I entered, I forgot what I had come for. I stared up at the trees, tall as the sky, wide as the clouds. Their trunks were the size of my home, and their branches as big as me.
I traced them and watched them meet and break, like lineages that wrapped all around the world.
“Forest like this is hard to come by,” Papa had said to me once while hunting.
And he was right.
This was only the second one I’d ever seen in my life, but I knew it was special.
I watched as two yellow-spotted, brown butterflies flew and fluttered from tree to tree, trying to get unstuck. Their legs had latched and their wings had found a flight pattern, and somehow it had rendered them improved. Too big for birds, to high for snakes.
Their entanglement made them better, made them faster, made them safer.
It would take them a long time to accept it, but they were stuck together all the same.