After eleven months on the run, a cursed drifter's past catches up to her.
|Another unfamiliar ceiling greeted me as I opened my eyes, faint light filtered through slats of wood soaked in morning dew. Most people would be quite alarmed to wake up in anyplace different than where they drifted off to sleep, but I was quite used to it. I closed my eyes again, reveling in the heaviness of my eyelids as I tried to tempt sleep back to me. What was it that I'd been dreaming of before I awoke?
The sky; yes, that was it. A vast twilight expanse had been laid out before me, with towering clouds sailing merrily overhead. But the strange thing was, the dream made me feel melancholic, as though it recalled a time I could never regain. I'd seen many dusk strewn skies in my life, and none of them had ever provoked such feelings in me. I was probably just remembering the dream wrong, or had it mixed up with another one from a previous night.
It was rapidly becoming clear that I wasn't going to be able to return to sleep, so I shifted upright... and collided with the low-hanging ceiling with a dull thwack. Well, at least I was fully awake now, even if my head didn't take much solace in the fact. I rubbed the throbbing area tenderly as I extracted myself, slowly this time, from the pile of straw I'd been resting in.
I pulled myself up to my full height, noting some stiffness in my shoulders and knees. Morning pain wasn't unusual for me either, although the affected locations changed depending on how I was forced to curl up at night. Some gentle stretches would take care of the discomfort, but I was hesitant to preform them that morning, as I'd been hearing some ominous straining noises from some of the seams in my clothes lately. But in the end, the pain won out; and though my robes protested, they held.
At this point I would normally seek out something to eat for breakfast, but I just wasn't that hungry. The family I was lodging with had quite a bit of sweet log they were looking to get rid of before it soured, and I just couldn't turn them down until the fourth round of plates was passed to me. I licked my lips and discovered a bit of syrupy dust still clinging to the corners of my mouth, and I decided that I was somewhat thirsty.
It took me a couple minutes to track down both of my sandals, as they seemed to have been thrown off in haste the previous night; whether by myself or someone else I couldn't remember. I silently hoped I'd been able to do the deed on my own, as I didn't particularly care for the idea of being carried to bed, mostly because I knew it would take more than one person to manage such a task.
It wasn't that I was heavy... okay, I was heavy, there was no denying that. But it wasn't because I was overweight... I wish that was all it was, it wouldn't be nearly so bad; and even if it was, it was something I'd be able to change about myself. But there was nothing that could be done about my height whatsoever. Standing two-and-a-half meters tall in bare feet, I was less statuesque than than I was titanic. Everything about me revolved around my ponderous frame and everyone else's reaction to it. I was always whacking my head on ceilings (just like earlier), stooping under doorframes (having located my sandals, I did this as I exited the barn), and-
Another impact on the head, this time from the tin cowling above the barn entrance. The point that I'm trying to make is that I hit my head a lot. I sat kneeling there for a couple of moments, clutching at my head and willing the searing pain to go away before realizing that I was no longer alone. A pair of bare, calloused feet had waded through the dew-stained grass to stand before me. I allowed my head to slowly tilt upwards; past the fading trousers and open coat (lingering, however briefly, on his exposed abdominal muscles), and up into the face of a young man I knew very well.
“Morning Jalmina.” he mumbled.
I nodded and managed to give a small smile in return. I didn't smile very often, but the rare view I was afforded that morning was enough to elicit one. It wasn't because the man standing in front of me was handsome... although I suppose he could be described as such if you were willing to overlook the copious amount of dirt he always seemed to be covered in; it was because of the novel perspective I was enjoying. There were very few ways to interact with people from a low vantage point without great embarrassment and awkward questions, so I did my best to savor the temporary illusion of being shorter than someone else.
But I could only hold my current position for so long without inviting suspicion, so I slowly began to unfold to my actual height. I watched with resigned sorrow as the man before me, and the ground he stood on, gradually retreated from my eyes. I hated standing up with such sluggishness, as people tended to think I was rubbing it in or enjoying it somehow, but it was necessary to prevent the blood from rushing to my head. I'd suffered two blackouts from standing up too quickly in the past, one of which almost caused me to topple over a railing and into stonework below. I scrunched up my shoulders and bent down slightly to make myself less intimidating, a habit that had become ingrained from frequent use.
But if Yarro Zaine was intimidated, he didn't show it. He still wore that same gentle smile above his wispy, dirty goatee; still looked at me with those same dirt brown eyes as he ran his dirt-crusted fingers through his dirt-caked hair. Really, the one word to describe the man was 'dirt'; which was fitting, considering 'Yarro Zaine' meant something along the lines of 'Baron of the Soil'... or at least that's what he told me. I couldn't recall a time I'd seen him anywhere approaching presentable, to the point I would've easily believed he had some sort of allergic reaction to water. Granted, I hadn't really known him for more than a month, but a guy has to bathe at some point right?
“Good morning.” I managed to say.
Of course, it wasn't a good morning; not anymore, and it wasn't going to be a good day either. Any day that contained Yarro Zaine within its hours, whether those hours were spent waking or sleeping, was a poor day indeed. That's not to say Yarro was a bad person, far from it; in fact I'd go so far as to say he was the nicest person I'd ever met. There wasn't any problem so large that he wasn't willing to lend both hands and a foot to solve, and his default response to having nothing on hand to do was to seek out some new way to make himself useful. I doubted the young man had anything approaching a selfish bone in his body.
The problem was that for all his enthusiasm and desire to help others, Yarro Zaine was woefully, staggeringly, inept at everything he'd ever attempted. He had a knack for transforming the simplest task into an impossible mess in the span of minutes; seconds if you were foolish enough to take your eyes off of him for the briefest moment. And all throughout the ensuing ordeal he'd have that same gentle smile plastered on his face, maybe cracking a painfully unfunny joke at his expense in a futile attempt to lighten the mood.
“Wow, Jalmina. Every time I look at you, it just reminds you that I need to take better care of myself. Been watching my weight so closely that I forgot to watch my height!”
He flashed a row of dusty teeth at me and wiggled his eyebrows up and down in a what was likely supposed to be a humorous way. I returned as large of a smile as I could manage and started off towards the well, knowing full well that my morning was only going to get worse from here on out, because every joke he made came with a helpful explanation to ruin it.
“Because... because you see, most people are concerned about their weight, but I was saying that I wish I wasn't so short! That's why it's funny!”
“Yah. Yah, I got it.” I mumbled behind a frozen smile.
Yarro went quiet for a moment, before clearing his throat.
“You didn't like it.”
“I... no, no not really.”
Another moment of silence.
“I didn't... didn't offend you, did I? I mean... I don't know whether that's a sore spot with you or anything... Your height...”
“What? No! No, no no. I don't care what people think about me.”
It was a stupid lie, I'll admit. It did offend me that he'd made a crack about my height, even if he was comparing himself negatively to me. Of course, his constant miserable attempts at humor were offensive enough on their own without the addition of my personal problems, not that I could tell him that; how could I? The guy was so absolutely oblivious to his own irritating personality that it would be cruel to even tell him how annoying he was being. He was the kind of person who was so emotionally fragile that even the smallest inability to please another led to a spiral of crippling depression. He had the bare minimum amount of self-worth necessary to function on basic societal levels, and nothing past that.
Of course, it wasn't like I could afford to choose who I made friends with. I was fortunate that someone as annoying as Yarro even desired to speak with me, let alone come within thirty meters of my position. If he weren't so oblivious, he might start noticing that there were more things to fix and more people to help whenever I happened to be around. There's a fairly large difference between ignorance and stupidity, and it didn't take long for people to realize that the polite, tall woman they've allowed into their homes was bad news.
I glanced over at Yarro again, who looked somewhat grim and contemplative. He was actually fairly handsome whenever he wasn't talking, which was all the more testimony to how aggravating it was to be around him (the dirt probably took some points off too). He caught my eye and returned a shaky smile. I wondered just what his face would look like if he were to figure out how much trouble I really was. Would it contort into a hateful glare, as I'd seen so many times before? Or even worse, would he just ignore me, in the hopes that I'd just go away?
I knew I should really be treasuring moments like these, when people were treating me with such warmth and kindness; but part of me, an uncomfortably large part of me, knew I deserved better than this. I'd try to squelch such thoughts as selfish and ungrateful, but in my heart I knew that I did deserve better than to have to trust in the hospitality of total strangers who inevitably pieced together just why things were suddenly falling apart and start hurling blunt objects and insults.
I didn't ask to be unlucky, and I certainly don't take pleasure in the misfortune I bring others without desiring it. I never did anything to deserve such a life as I'd been forced to live; on the contrary, I've been nothing but a doormat to anyone with the decency to look in my direction without a grimace or a sneer. I do whatever they ask of me, without any hesitation or complaint, and what does it avail me? Sooner rather than later they figure out what's going on and then they can't chase me out fast enough.
Sometimes, more times than I'm comfortable acknowledging, I feel like turning around and staying; to focus my misfortune on the people who've broken their promise. To punish the people who assure me that they're not like all the others, that they'll care for me no matter what happens, that they understand what I've gone through. I know were to find those people, they're always at the front of the mob, screaming the loudest when I'm found out.
We arrived at the well, a rather small and unassuming piece of stonework that was much closer to a pit. The well's roof had collapsed recently, not because of me but because it had rotted away from improper sealing. Judging from the rickety construction and wholly unnecessary use of sticks, I guessed that Yarro had something to do with it. Still, the water was as good as any (and better than a lot that I've been forced to drink), and we sat down on the rim of the well to enjoy the sunrise as we drank.
Another benefit of the water was that it kept Yarro from talking, sparing me the umpteenth variation on the 'wishing you well' joke he kept forgetting he'd already used. We must have struck a strange silhouette in the dawn light, the dusty farm hand and the drifter girl who towered over him. Of course, the only ones out and about besides the two of us at this hour were the scarecrows picking their way through the crops, and they didn't pay mind to anything unrelated to their assigned tasks.
“Never really liked scarecrows...” Yarro thought aloud.
I couldn't think of a way to end that sentence politely. Truth was I didn't like scarecrows either. They never seemed to move correctly; always just a little too slow or a bit too fast. They also had multiple limbs placed in haphazard fashion that twitched at random intervals, which didn't serve to ease my mind whenever one happened to be nearby. It wasn't like it was with another person or an animal, which you could turn your back to without feeling vulnerable most of the time. Scarecrows just projected an aura of creeping paranoia, as if it wasn't unreasonable to expect them to suddenly start attacking people without cause.
“...you have a point,” I conceded finally. “But they have to make upkeep on the fields a lot less taxing for your family, right?”
Yarro tilted his head in a half-shrug.
“Sometimes... and sometimes they don't...”
“What's that mean?”
Yarro sat up a little straighter as he began explaining about scarecrows. I always enjoyed seeing this side of Yarro Zaine, which was all too often smothered in his self-doubt and emotional neediness. This Yarro was far more pleasant to be around, and I was going to be sorry to see him go once he ran out of steam on the current topic.
“They're self-repairing animates; if part of them gets damaged, they fix or replace the damaged part with anything they find around them. Scraps of metal, rope, sticks and such. The thing is though, you can't let them use wood that's been alive in the past few hours. That's why we can't let them go chopping or hauling wood in case they damage themselves and have to make a repair.”
“Why is wood bad?”
“Not all wood, dead wood is fine. Living wood is what's the problem.”
“So if this 'living wood' was part of a tree or something recently it's bad for them to graft it onto themselves? Why is that?”
“Couldn't tell you; just something they kept telling me: 'Don't let the scarecrows near the trees. Don't let them touch 'em.'”
“So that's why we're the ones cutting down the trees over there this morning, then?” I asked, pointing off at the scraggly trees in the distance.
“Safer this way, plus its not just the two of us, father will be around with the axes and such shortly.”
Yarro said this in his usual singsong manner, likely with the unfortunate impression that this new information would serve to ease my concerns. Fact was, Freyod Zaine had been deeply suspicious of me since the moment his son had returned home with a woman taller than their front door. He never said anything negative to me, although he didn't really like talking much in the first place, but his eyes turned cold whenever I happened to be within his field of view.
Creiga Zaine wasn't much better, although she had a far more pleasant approach to dealing with stress: smothering the source of worry with hospitality. She never let me out of her sight, always asking about me and who I'd met and where I'd been and a thousand other tedious questions I had no real answer for. At first I felt sorry about lying to her, that was until I realized that she repeated questions and didn't seem to notice or care whenever I gave a different answer.
Still, she was better than Freyod, who's steely gaze was particularly hard this morning as he approached with a bundle of axes. It was particularly apparent that he wasn't in a jovial mode, as he scowled when looking at any spot close to me; but at the same time refused to meet my eyes, grimacing as he watched my hands take one of the ax handles. Saying anything would have been unwise, which is probably what prompted Yarro to intercede.
“Morning, father. Ready to clear out those trees?”
Freyod nodded with a vaguely positive grunt, and we strode towards the treeline.
“Maga berries should be ripe soon, can't wait to pick those again!” Yarro said, making another stab at conversation.
“Can't, already told the 'crows to do it; it'll only confuse 'em.” Freyod mumbled.
I took Freyod's sudden declaration to be a good sign, and decided to chime in.
“So, they can't be told something different until they're done with their current task?”
“Yah, they can't do anything different until-” Yarro began.
“What've you been telling her, boy?”
“Nothing, sir; I've just been showing her how we get things done is all.”
Freyod didn't glare at Yarro as he said this, preferring not to waste his disapproving gaze on anyone but myself. Problem was, now that we were all standing and walking together, his eyes were level with my breasts; which was a tad awkward for him, to say the least. He seemed to compromise by directing his anger at the ax-head bobbing at my side instead.
“What do you know about scarecrows?”
“Well, nothing that she wouldn't get into trouble with if I didn't tell her, sir. I explained... I told her what you told me.” Yarro noted.
Freyod said nothing else until we came under the shade of the trees, although his mood seemed to lighten infinitesimally. We unpacked the axes and set to work on the trees and surrounding brush, clearing a wide swathe over the early hours of the day. Around noon, Yarro chipped his ax on a particularly stubborn trunk, and swapped it out with his father's. Suddenly finding himself with little to do, Freyod sat down on a stump and took to watching me instead.
I'd be lying if I said wasn't uncomfortable being watched while I worked. It had happened to me many times before, and I never enjoyed being stared at. This time however, I knew the reason for Freyod's interest. Occasionally, out of the corner of my eye, I could see him leaning forward and opening his mouth, only for him to recline again with a low grumble. I knew the look of someone wanting to say something important, and decided to give him the small push he needed to start talking.
“Gotten through a lot already, haven't we?” I noted with a guarded smile.
This seemed to be enough motivation for Freyod, and he leaned forward again.
“We sure have... things've been...” He sighed through his nose, absentmindedly twirling the damaged ax in the grass. He looked at his feet for a moment before finding his voice again.
“Been- I've been meaning to... apologize about my... about the way I've been treating you lately. Not exactly the trusting type, you see.”
I paused mid-swing, not daring to believe what he was saying... and feeling a familiar creeping sensation rising up my spine.
“I've been... unfair. To you, and to Yarro. I expect you're probably angry, about the way I've been treating you. I was wrong to be suspicious about-”
“Whew! Those Ciber trees don't go down without a fight! Mind if I trade you, father?”
Freyod jerked at his son's sudden intrusion into our conversation, and the ax tumbled out of his hands into the grass.
“Woah! Sorry, sir, I didn't mean to startle you!”
Freyod shook his head with a mumbled 'It's alright' and hoisted himself to his feet. He looked at me as if he wanted to continue, but seemed to think better of it.
“Ciber tree, you say? Where is it?”
“Over there, near the ditch on the far side.” Yarro said as his pointed. “Got about a hand's width into the trunk before my arms started giving out.”
“I'll finish it off, you take a minute or two to yourself.” Freyod said, swapping axes again and setting off.
“Ciber trees are the ones with the really hard trunks, right?” I asked as Yarro sank down onto the stump.
“Like iron. But if you can get a good size Ciber cut up it goes for quite a bit. Some artisan-types prefer it over steel, and its quite rare.” He said, pulling up the ax to examine the cracked head.
I felt a strange sense of unease about Freyod's conversation, although I couldn't pinpoint just why. From the way it sounded I'd misjudged the man, and probably Creiga as well. It had been rather sudden when I showed up, and my lack of forthcoming about who I was didn't serve to help. I'd thought that I'd long worn out my welcome, and I was planning on leaving at some point in the coming days, but maybe I didn't need to now. This was the longest I had been able to stay in one place for a while... maybe I could remain here.
Of course, I had the feeling that I knew exactly what kind of conversation Yarro's father had been trying to start just now. The Zaines rarely traveled outside the boundaries of their fields, and Yarro wasn't exactly what one would call a sociable person. My arrival must have seemed a small miracle once the shock wore off. The only question now was how long it would take before Freyod mustered the courage to broach the subject in earnest. I wasn't a stranger to-
No, that was wrong, I was a stranger to love; although I'd question whether or not that's what we had here. I'd experienced love, yes; but not for many years, and the appeal of a relationship had always been fleeting even then. I suppose it was hard to fall in love with people who invariably grew to hate me. Solitude wasn't always a bad thing, and deep down I wondered whether or not I was afraid of having someone depend on me. Would I be able to live up to their expectations? Would I start expecting things in return?
I studied Yarro once more, putting aside his immaturity for the moment. Beyond the dirt (and now, sweat and grass) was a handsome, well-muscled young man; if a bit on the rugged side of things. He was definitely knowledgeable about the natural world too, I kept finding myself taken aback by his encyclopedic knowledge concerning the most obscure herbs and insects. He was also quite friendly and caring once you got past his lack of confidence.
But then, that was the problem with Yarro Zaine; he was such a self-defeating individual that I just couldn't see myself, or anyone really, in a relationship with him. I tried to conjure up a mental image of him being romantic, and simply couldn't make it take shape. The man was, at the very end of things, someone who couldn't do anything by himself. Some women might have fallen for such a helpless person, but I just didn't see the use.
“So what were you and father talking about just now?”
Yarro's sudden inquiry shook me from my stasis.
“What? Oh, that was... it was nothing.”
“He rarely talks to me and mother, let alone other people, so it must've been something.”
I began tracing a slow path around the trunk as choose my words.
“I'm not quite sure, but it seemed like he was trying to... be more friendly... with me.”
“Well, he hasn't been the warmest person I've ever come across.”
Or the coldest person, I added in my head.
“It's like I said, he's a very insular person, my father. He hates meeting new people most of all. I'm pretty surprised you were able to get him to open up to you so quickly, if I'm being honest with you.”
Yarro flashed me one of those perfectly sincere smiles of his, and I decided to level.
“If I'm being honest, I think he was testing the waters for... arranging a betrothal... for you and me...”
I couldn't bring myself to say the word 'marriage', a word I really, really hated. It always conjured up fanciful, over-saturated images of cooing couples dancing on dewy, sun-drenched meadows. 'Betrothal' was a far more appropriate word for the situation, much more solemn and dignified, more... real. I expected Yarro to stare up at me, or stammer a bit at this revelation; what I didn't expect was him throwing back his head with a shockingly cynical chuckle.
“You know you're the third girl he's tried to dump me on? He may not be outgoing but he sure knows how to take advantage of people.”
Yarro checked himself and went back to worrying the ax head.
“Course he means well. Can't say I've given him much in the way of confidence when it comes to ensuring the family line... But if he out and out asks you, feel free to turn him down. No girl deserves to be shackled to me.”
“Would you just stop that already!? You aren't nearly as horrible as you think you are! I've got problems you would never dare to dream of, and the fact is that you happen to be a very nice young man who just lacks the will to be his own person!”
Its always a strange sensation, finding yourself in someone's face knowing that the angry words ringing in your ears were your own. It'd been a while since I'd gotten angry at someone, and I made sure to enjoy the guilty catharsis it brought. Yarro stood rooted to the stump, unblinking eyes affixed to my own. I slowly pulled back, trying with all my might not to bury my face in my hands.
“I-I uh... that's... that's some... glad you felt comfortable enough to speak your mind, Jalmina. It... can't have been easy putting up with-”
My face must have betrayed some of my annoyance and embarrassment, because he hastily amended himself.
“You've made a good point. I am a little... too quick to doubt myself.”
“No! No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled like that.”
Yarro stood up, shaking his head.
“Nah, you're right. I'm getting tired of my father talking for me, anyway. I can't be proud of myself until I make something of myself, is all.”
“Yah, yah that's true.”
People don't change in an instant, and they certainly don't change because someone tells them that they need to turn their life around. Change for the better and change for the worse happens slowly, from within a person. Nothing else will last. Still, for the moment Yarro seemed sincere in his motivation, punctuating every sentence by burying the ax in the stump.
“Been idle for far too long, it's time to make something of myself.”
“Time for joking around is come and gone.”
“Sick of this place anyway, it never changes.”
“Maybe I just just up and leave... get out of here.”
“You can't just leave.”
Yarro slowly retracted his hand from the embedded handle.
“Why not? I won't be able to change if I don't make a clean break of it.”
“Well, you have to say goodbye to your parents at least. I mean, you'd regret it later if you didn't tell them you were leaving, right?”
Yarro's shoulders slowly drooped as he considered my words.
“But then nothing will come of this. I mean... it's not like I'm not grateful; and being here isn't that bad really. But if I stay here... I'll be the same person forever.”
“You can't be reckless. It sounds nice to strike out on your own on a whim but what will you do afterwards? Are you expecting to just bump into an adventure ten minutes into this excursion you have planned? Life doesn't work that way.”
“I'm not saying I want anything like that, I'm just thinking of traveling for a bit and so forth. Not... not anything like in books with adventures and quests and things, that's just silly. It's just... since you've arrived I thought maybe there was some parts of life that I might be missing out on, you know? Something fulfilling. Something meaningful.”
“You and me, Yarro. We aren't so different after all.”
My face hurt from the hypocritical smile now stretched across it. He and I were alike in some ways to be sure, but for all the wrong reasons. Like him I'd hoped to see something better than what I was used to, and in the end I'd come up empty-handed and broken-hearted. Still, the worst part of me was the part that loved to see the best in other people, the part that sill whispered that the world could be a beautiful place. I hated that part of me, especially when she was right. I picked up the ax and copied Yarro's motions.
“We both wanted something better for ourselves.”
“We both suffer from a lack of pride in who we are.”
“And we both are used to others speaking for us.”
“But I suppose that's what makes us stro-”
Up until now, the ax head had been suffering a great deal of pressure along the unseen fracture it had received from the Ciber tree's hard bark. It had stood up to Freyod leaning his weight on it, and Yarro chopping the trunk. It finally gave in under the force of my blows, shattering lengthwise along the edge. The shrapnel projected outwards from the direction of the swing however, meaning I remained unscathed.
Yarro was far less fortunate; defying all odds and probability he took a finger-sized portion straight through his heart. He stood stone still for the briefest moment, looking at the embedded shard as though he'd never seen anything so beautiful; and then he crumpled into the dry grass with the softest of sounds. My mind went numb; all I could register was the odd warmth of the overhead sun and the splintered handle slipping from my perfectly unscathed hands. I stared at Yarro's immobile form for a half dozen breaths, and then I ran.
It always ended with running, one way or the other. Either alone on cold nights before they discovered anything, or with the threats of wrathful mobs echoing behind me; it always ended with running. How could I be so simple as to think this time would be different? I ran away from the last situation to get here, why wouldn't I have to run away from this one too?
I felt the rough caress of the wind through my hair as I escaped. In the short time people were friendly to me I'd be asked without fail just how I kept it so long and straight. I would've preferred to change the latter aspect if I could, as I'd always envied women with wavy hair. As for the length... well, it just felt good at times like these; feeling it stream behind me like liquid darkness, dancing in the breeze and tugging lightly at my scalp. It helped calm me in the worst of times, and served as a sorely needed cloak for my size in the best of things. Upkeep was more than a pain, and it kept tickling the backs of my knees; but right now... I needed to feel the wind in my hair.
Through the tall grass I went, past the well and towards the horizon... another friend of mine. The line between earth and sky never judged me, it never spat at me or looked at me with pity-filled eyes. And it never pretended to be anything other than what it was: a setting sun that meant that the horrible day I'd just been through was finally coming to an end. It was always my way out, and it was always there for me...
Except this time, because the one horrible thing about the horizon is that its easy for anything to place itself between it and you; and right now that one thing was the last person I wanted to see. He was a short man; aged but smooth, and armed with little more than a polished cane and a gentle smile. But that was all Spio Grinnet needed as stood in the middle of that field, staring down a woman nearly three times his height.
I could have kept running, I really could have. Thinking back, there was absolutely nothing stopping me from continuing on. True, he might have called after me, but that didn't mean I had to listen even if he did. But I did stop, my hair slamming into my back,heels digging into the soil. I started shaking again; not that I was scared exactly, it was probably just exhaustion. I stood there for second after painful second, willing my body to come back under my control as I stared into those cool eyes.
It was always a strange mixture of emotions to hear my name on the lips of my adopted father. It was comforting and familiar foremost, his voice was rarely lacking in affection, after all. But there was always a small seed of disgust that managed to pale it. I never really understood where that part came from; Grinnet never got angry with me, just disappointed and a touch frustrated at times when it was appropriate to be. He never denied me any request (not that I ever made any), and out of all the people who told me they didn't care what I'd done, he was the only person who'd ever really meant it. But that small seed still remained, no matter how I tried to shake it, and right now it was threatening to bloom into something bad.
“... you don't know how worried I've been.”
Was it the lack of emotion in this situation? A real father would be angry and relieved, not studying me from behind dusty spectacles. I tried to recall my real father, but it was so long ago when he died. A hazy memory of a sunlit room with rustling curtains was all I could muster. Two figures standing against that light. My mother too? She was even further from recollection, a vague notion of existence more than anything. Was there even anything there to remember?
I sank to my knees, the dry stalks of grass bunching up beneath me. I watched Grinnet's feet make their slow approach, noting despite myself that he was limping worse than when I'd seen him last. This prompted an odd pang of guilt, even though I knew it had nothing to do with anything I'd ever done.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
I worked up the courage to look into his eyes again. I tried to say that I was fine, that I wasn't really free to talk right now, that I was surprised to see him here; anything but the truth. But against that look of genuine concern that he was trying so hard to suppress, my willpower was simply no match.
“No. He's... he's dying...”
Somehow I was able to fight back the tears; somehow, barely. It took everything I had, but I didn't start crying. I was still in control. I started to explain myself but Grinnet simply held up a hand.
“Hepthatapth will take care of it. She always does.”
I didn't cry at the mention of my doctor's name. I didn't cry as he led me back to the same familiar carriage with its crooked wheel and its musty seats. I didn't even cry when he came back later and told me that Yarro was going to be survive (although the use of that word did prompt a shiver). It was only when he sat across the seat next to me and we began to move back towards home that the tears began to flow. A trickle at first, then a steady, burning stream as the pain set in once more.
I was going back to Whitewall Asylum.