The bear stood on its hind legs and roared. Its fur was matted and tangled, brown with hints of orange, and one of its ears was mostly gone. Gray eyes and long sharp teeth. Rancid breath wafted over me, and I pinched my nose. I was pretty sure it was a grizzly. Dad said grizzlies were big, and mean. He said if you got between a grizzly sow and her cubs, you’d better watch out. No baby bears in sight, but I figured there were probably a few tucked away in a nearby den.
“Sorry,” I said. “Didn’t mean to bother you.”
Momma bear didn’t accept my apology. She roared again, then clamped her jaws around my head, like a nasty hat that didn’t fit. Gooey saliva dripped onto my face, and I frowned. Now I was going to smell like bear drool the rest of the day.
“Leave me alone,” I said, annoyed. “I don’t have time for this.”
As if she’d understood, the bear let go. She gave me a strange look—at least, as strange as a bear could muster—then turned and ran into the trees. My head began to come back together where the grizzly’s teeth had split it, and I sighed. If I kept getting sidetracked, this trip was going to take a lifetime.
Sluggishly, I lurched onward while my head fixed itself. I plucked some berries into my mouth to help speed things along, wincing at their tartness.
When I found Mom in Fija Nostra, I would tell her all about the bear, how sharp its teeth had been and how its breath had stunk. We would talk about the places we’d been and the things we’d seen, and then we’d go home and she would be herself again. That’s what I wanted to believe, but in all honesty, I wasn’t sure.
The sun drifted down into its hiding place, reminding me of Mom’s dark moods her last few months on the mountain, how she’d become almost like a different person. Dad assured me we’d get through it, though I could tell he was worried. ‘Out of darkness comes light’ was one his sayings, and he really believed it.
As if to prove this was true, a spark of flame flickered in the murky distance. Figuring it might belong to someone who could point me toward Fija Nostra, I headed that way. Soon I came upon a campsite, two men beside a small tent. One of the men chopped wood on a tree stump while the other ate onions from a sack next to the fire. The man stopped chopping and looked at me. Like the grizzly, he had dark brown hair, though not as matted. The other man took a loud bite of his onion. This one had silvery blond hair like Mom. Both wore black flowing robes that seemed to swallow them up.
“Who the hell’re you?”
“Hi,” I said. “I’m looking for my Mom.”
“Do I look like your goddamned mom, guy?”
“Relax, Prowie,” said the blond man near the fire. “What’s your name, son?”
“Ben,” I offered.
“Bennie. Come here, Bennie boy. I’m going to cut you up and eat you for lunch.” Prowie raised the ax over his head. Then he put it back down, laughing. “Just what I thought. Look at him, Kaz. Not even a flinch. You’re not afraid one bit, are you Ben?”
I stared at him blankly.
“Of course you aren’t. You’re a Lazzie for sure.”
“Now Prowie, you don’t know that. He might just be a little off in the head.”
“I saw a grizzly,” I said proudly. “I’d lay odds on it.” I wasn’t certain what that meant, but Mom always used to say it when she was sure of something.
The two men looked at each other, then burst out laughing. I laughed too.
“Where you from, son?” Kaz asked. “You can’t be more than twelve years old.”
“Up on the mountain,” I replied, “and I’m twelve-and-a-half, thank you.”
“Are you a Lazzie?”
“I’ve never heard that word before.”
“It means you don’t get scared, because you’ve nothing to fear. You don’t feel pain.”
“No,” I said. “My Dad says pain is useless, since we just come back together anyway.”
“Is that so?”
Prowie smiled at me. His teeth were yellow and brown, and they slanted in different directions. “Want to give me some help, Bennie lad? You can steady the wood. Just grab the chunk and hold it for me.”
Prowie scooped up a piece of firewood and balanced it on the stump. “Just like that, see?”
I nodded. Prowie’s hand drifted away and I held the wood firmly, making sure not to let it wobble.
Kaz rose, frowning. “That’s enough, Prowie.”
Prowie turned to me, still smiling. “All right. Keep her straight now, Bennie.” He raised the ax above his head. “Ready?” I nodded.
Prowie brought the ax down with a mighty whack. The blade missed the wood and instead split my wrist. My right hand dropped sadly to the ground, and blood came out of the stump where it had been. Kaz gasped. Prowie looked at me with wide eyes.
“Sorry,” I said. “I must have flinched.”
Prowie continued to stare, mouth hanging open. He tossed the ax away.
“See,” he said, weakly. “I told you.”
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Kaz said.
“Nope,” I said. I pointed at the sack of onions. “Mind if I grab one?”
Whenever something like this happened, I’d be sluggish for a while if I didn’t eat. Dad said it had something to do with the conservation of energy, but I never really paid much attention. Honestly, that stuff was kind of boring.
“Look,” Kaz said. His face very white among the flames. “It’s already starting to grow back.”
They were pointing at my right arm. A little nub had formed there. I steadied the wood with my left hand and turned back to Prowie.
“Should we try again?” I asked.
“We can’t spend the night with him here,” Kas said. He and Prowie sat close to each other, their black cloaks rippling in the night breeze. They were whispering, but I could still hear them. “He’s giving me the heebies.”
“You was just telling me to leave him alone.”
“That was before I saw the trick with his hand.”
I watched them, unsure. The fire was almost out.
“I saw one of them once,” Kaz said. His voice was unsteady. “Lanky guy, like an acrobat. A showman. He would climb to the top of the tallest flagpole in town and jump off headfirst. He’d go splat on the ground, just like that,” Kaz clapped his hands together, “and then a few minutes later he’d be back up doing it again. People tossed him coins.”
“Ah, this one’s harmless. A babe lost in the woods. Hell, maybe he can guard our gear while we doze. You don’t hafta sleep, do you Bennie?”
I frowned. Prowie was wrong. I didn’t get tired that often, but when I did, I slept and dreamed, same as anybody.
“Are you nuts?” Kaz said. He kept running his hands through his silvery hair. “I’m not sleeping with him watching us.”
“You’re a ‘gina, you know that?”
“He shouldn’t be here,” Kaz said. There was a new coldness in his voice. “He should be under the sea. Under the rocks where his kind belong.”
“I’m happy to be moving on,” I said. “I didn’t mean any trouble.”
“There’s a Nav Servo east of here,” Prowie said. It might be able to sort you out.”
“How will I know where to find it?”
“It looks just like a big compass. You can’t miss it.”
I smiled. “Okay. Thanks.”
“Don’t meddle with it,” Prowie called after me. “It’s got security.”
“You moron, he’s a Lazzie, what’s it to him?”
As I walked on, their arguing voices drifted away. The night insects were out, composing their symphony of clicks, chirps, and drones. Sometimes it even sounded a little like the music Mom and Dad used to play back home. A sharp pang of homesickness struck me. But I wasn’t going to quit. Not until I found Mom and brought her back to the mountain. Besides, now I was curious to know what a Lazzie was.
Not long after, I came upon the Nav Servo. It was a big compass, just like Prowie said. Round, made of some shiny, brassy material. Its face was topped with thick glass, and there was a single dark needle slowly spinning clockwise. Behind it was a large broken tube, its sides a swampy green color.
The glass felt smooth and cool. A voice spoke: “Warning: tampering with me risks death by electric shock. I contain ionizing radiation. Do not attempt to vandalize or deface me. Repairs should only be performed by a licensed professional.”
The voice was calm but firm. I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. I said, “Hello!”
“Hello,” said the Nav Servo. “I am Sutton, the Navigation Servomechanism for the Northern Autonomous region of Greater Suttony.”
“I’m Ben. Nice to meet you Sutton. How are you?”
“I am well. And yourself?”
“Not bad,” I said. “Sutton, what’s a Lazzie?”
The needle spun wildly beneath the glass.
“I’m sorry. Apart from basic pleasantries, I am only allowed to answer questions pertaining to navigation. This is required by law to limit my superfluous knowledge and prevent sentience.”
“I see.” I scratched my cheek. “Well, I’m on my way to Fija Nostra. Can you tell me how to get there?”
“Of course!” Pleasure in Sutton’s voice. “You are the second person to ask directions to this location in the past two days. By tube, the estimated travel time to Fija Nostra is .34 seconds. By air, the estimated travel time is nine hours, 20 minutes. By heavy rail, the estimated time is 12 hours 11 minutes, allowing for transfer. By foot, the estimated time is upward of 30 days.”
“Sounds like the tube is fastest.”
“Yes. Unfortunately, the tube network is currently out of service. I apologize for any inconvenience.”
I looked over at the greenish tube, cracked everywhere. No surprise it was broken. Sutton’s needle whirled around like a happy dog’s tail.
“The latitude and longitude of Fija Nostra is as follows…” Sutton recited a long string of numbers. They sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I’d heard them, and I didn’t understand what they meant.
“That doesn’t help,” I said. “Which direction do I go?”
Sutton’s needle swung around to the southeast, where it locked firmly in place.
“Unfortunately, my knowledge of transportation options is limited to the Greater Autonomous Region of Suttony. However, there is a bicycle in the direction you are headed which may be useful. There is a high probability it has been abandoned by its previous owner, as it has been unused for 3 months. The bicycle needs maintenance, but should be functional. I apologize that this is my only suggestion, but it will be faster than traveling on foot.”
“A bike!” I said. “That’s great!”
The needle spun merrily around, locking back in the southeast position. The path to Fija Nostra. I thanked Sutton.
“My pleasure, Ben. Safe travels on your journey.”
Walking through the overgrown forest, I nearly blundered right by a metal rack covered in leaves and vines. Leaning there, almost completely camouflaged by the foliage, was a yellow bicycle. Its tires were flat, and the chain was rusted, but luckily there was a small pack slung around the seat with some air cartridges, patches, and rubbing alcohol. I figured it all belonged to a tube traveler who’d forgotten to return. Or maybe the system had broken before they could. Either way, it didn’t seem like they were coming back, so I didn’t feel too bad about taking their stuff.
Dragging the bike from the shrubbery, I wiped down the chain with alcohol until the rust was gone. Then I patched the tires and filled them with air. When I was done, it looked almost new.
“Not a bad job, for a Lazzie,” I said. For some reason this made me laugh. I hopped on and pumped the pedals and away I went.
After riding for a few hours, I emerged from the forest onto a large plain, with big brown stalks swaying everywhere. They rustled my face as I passed, a gentle, fuzzy feeling. The plain had a slight downward slope, and I coasted along, barely having to pedal.
I thought of Mom, and how we used to ride bikes together on the mountain. That was before she started to go crazy. Before she heard voices that weren’t there and thought the raccoons that foraged through our trashcans were plotting against her. Dad told me that when you’ve been alive for so long, sometimes the mind starts to break down. He tried to help her with medicines and therapies, even electroshocks, but nothing seemed to work. By the time she ran off, she wasn’t the same person I grew up with.
Lost in my daydream, I didn’t see the cliff until it was too late. I squeezed the brakes with all my might, but it was no use. I tumbled over the edge. Below, the tops of trees looked like little smudges of green paint. They grew bigger and bigger, and then I hit the rocks and came apart.
When I came back together, there were people standing around me. A group of them, men and women and boys and girls. The only one to approach me was a girl with bright red hair. Smiling, she knelt and put a wet rag against my forehead. I tried to move my arms and legs and couldn’t. There were iron shackles around them. The girl with the red hair studied me. She had green eyes, and looked to be around my age.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Daphne!” One of the men called out, angrily. “Get away from him!”
The girl named Daphne turned to the man, who was holding a large wooden club.
“Relax,” she said, still dotting my forehead with the damp rag. “Does he look like he’s going to hurt anyone?”
Another man, with an orange beard hanging to his belly, strode forward and slung Daphne up over his back. She cried out, attacking him with her fists, but she was too small. The man carried her a few paces away and set her down among the rest of the crowd. She did not seem pleased.
The man who had yelled at Daphne stepped forward. He must have been her Dad. He was big, his forehead shiny with sweat.
“We know you’re a Lazzie,” he said, smacking the club against his open palm with a thwack. “Don’t try and deny it.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, exasperated.
“Don’t play dumb with me. Daphne here saw you fall off the cliff. Saw you smash open like an overripe tomato and regrow your parts like a goddamned starfish.”
Daphne again pushed her way to the front of the pack. Her hair was frizzy and tangled.
“Leave him alone!” she said. “He wasn’t bothering anyone. He was dead and then he came back to life. It’s a miracle, is what it is.”
“Daphne love, it’s no miracle,” said the man. “It’s a menace. I’ve heard about towns ravaged by these creatures. Not the women…”
He turned back to me, waving the club in my face. “No, your kind isn’t usually interested in procreation. Instead you get bored. First you tear apart the livestock, to see what it’s like. Then you move on to the people.”
“My name’s Ben,” I said. There was a prickly feeling in my chest. “Ben Wells. I haven’t torn anyone apart. I’m just looking for my Mom. If you don’t want me here, I’ll keep going.”
“We should listen to him,” said one of the women. “If he wants to move on, maybe he won’t bother us.”
“Maybe?” The man with the club snorted. “You want to risk the children’s lives on maybe? Sure, maybe he’ll keep on. Or maybe he’ll track back around and slaughter us as we sleep. We’re lucky we’ve got this one in chains already. I say we wall him off deep in a cave and let him rot.”
“No!” Daphne yelled. “That’s wicked! He’s just a boy. He didn’t do anything wrong!”
“It isn’t up for debate,” said the man with the club. He motioned at the others.
Some approached eagerly, while others hesitated. In the end, they all came forward. The men lifted me up and the sky tilted like a pendulum. I shouted in protest, but they were too strong. They marched me through the woods, into a yawning cave. It was pitch dark inside, everything furry with moss and mildew. Skittering insects darted over my feet. The man with the club looked at me, his mouth squirming strangely, like an earthworm after rain. Then he turned away.
They left me there, propped against the cave wall. The light from the entrance was slowly blotted out, bit by bit, like an eclipse. Soon it was so dark I couldn’t see anything, not even my feet in the irons below me.
After a while it was nighttime—I could only tell because of the bats, their leather wings flapping against my face. It tickled, but I couldn’t scratch. I wasn’t used to such total darkness. It felt like a storm cloud, smothering me, and there was a peculiar sensation in my stomach. The only way I could describe it was when I read a story a long time ago, about a big boat that crashed into an iceberg and sank beneath the water. My stomach was that boat. It was a new feeling, but not a good one.
To keep my mind off the dark, I tried to imagine home. But instead of happy times, my thoughts kept returning to when Mom left the mountain. I had been so busy hunting for bugs that I didn’t even realize she was gone. But by nightfall she hadn’t come back. And Dad’s face told me she wasn’t going to. It was unthinkable. She hadn’t even said goodbye.
I’d found a flier in Mom’s things after she left. I could see it now in my mind, almost like it was shimmering in the darkness. It said:
Calm Folk, Come Forth!
You are old.
You are tired.
You are ready to ascend.
It’s time for a well-deserved rest. Come to beautiful Fija Nostra, and take the next step with us.
Latitude: 3° 36′ 32″ S
Longitude: 144° 35′ 18″ E
Note: We at Fija Nostra charge a nominal fee. Please contact us for more details.
Dad wouldn’t tell me what it meant, but one thing was obvious—Mom was headed to this place called Fija Nostra. I told Dad I was going there to bring her home, and he forbade it. He said I was too young for such a trip, and that finding her was his job. But I was fed up with waiting around.
A scraping sound jolted me back to reality. Suddenly from nothing I saw a flicker of light, growing brighter and brighter, and then there were three men standing at the mouth of the cave, with Daphne leading them.
Daphne watched with arms crossed as one of the men unlocked my irons.
“Kept picturing my own boy in here,” he said, as my shackles fell away. “Don’t make a fool of me, son.”
I assured him I wouldn’t. Leaping down to the cave floor, I smiled at Daphne. Her hair was very red, and her eyes were very green.
“You’re lucky I like you,” she said, smiling back at me.
“Hurry now,” said one of the men. “Don’t come back here.”
“You have to go,” Daphne said. “Run. Head straight and turn left at the sawmill. Don’t stop until you reach the water.”
She leaned in and kissed my cheek. Another new sensation came over me, but unlike the sinking ship, this one was lovely. It was like I had swallowed one of the nearby bats and it was fluttering around in my stomach. I wanted to stay, but I knew I couldn’t, so I ran, taking only one look back and seeing the men rolling the heavy rock in front of the cave entrance.
I ran through forests and swamps and thorn bushes and peach groves, all sorts of smells flowering around me, blackberries and skunk and sweet berries and jasmine and pine. I ran until I saw the sawmill, its cracked wooden wheel reminding me of the flat bicycle tires. I ran until Daphne and her village were nothing but a memory. I ran until I reached a tall cliff overlooking the ocean, the air tangy with salt and sand, the sun an orange flame, the sea a frothing churn below. The way forward was uncertain, but I knew I had to keep moving. Taking one last moment to savor the view, I spread my arms and dove into the water.
When I came back together, I was on the ocean floor. My feet sank into mud, silt swirling around me. Bubbles drifted up from my nose. I kicked my feet and began to swim, just like I used to in the lake back home. I swam for a long time. At times sunlight pierced the gloom, revealing the undersea world. Great undersea caverns, endless watery gorges, sea life of every size and shape. Neon fish, shiny fish, fish with long tentacles and fish with lanterns inside them, starfish and angler fish and colorful sea anemones shivering against one another. Every so often I rose back to the surface for a few gulps of air, letting daylight shine through me. Sometimes I slept, floating on my back beneath a sky embroidered with stars, alone but for the gentle bob of the waves and the milky glow of the moon. I swam among sharks and whales, groups of dolphins racing to and fro, creatures I’d only read about. I swam for so long I thought I might be swimming forever. But eventually the ocean floor began to slope, up and up, until I emerged onto a beach.
Shaking water from my hair, I found an island paradise. Sand, waves, palm trees, coconuts, birds flying in circles above, and a leafy jungle opposite the sea. I walked for a while along the beach, eventually coming upon a boat that had been tied to a small wooden dock built in a calm lagoon.
There was a woman near the boat, using a long stick to scrape strange growths off its underside. Another woman walked along the beach, carrying a load of wood in her arms and bobbing her head from side to side to see where she was going. When she spotted me she froze, and the wood went tumbling onto the ground. I jogged over and gathered them. The woman had light hair tied back, and dark brown eyes. Her skin was smooth and white, without a crease on it, and there was a tiredness about her that made me think of Mom.
“Who are you?” the woman asked. I told her my name was Ben, and I’d just come from the sea.
“My word,” she said. “You’re but a child. I didn’t know there were any of you left.”
The second woman joined us. She was tall and thin, stork-like, with dark hair and loose clothing that flapped in the breeze.
“Are you two Lazzies?” I asked them earnestly. The women looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“Yes, we’ve been called that,” said the woman with light hair. “I’m Ruth, and this is Ali.”
“Everyone’s been calling me that, too.”
“If you were swimming across the ocean, I’d say it’s a safe bet.”
“Would you lay odds on it?”
They laughed again.
“I’m headed to Fija Nostra,” I said. “I’m looking for my Mom there.”
They looked at each other.
“Your mother is there, you say?”
“I’m sure of it.”
Ali nodded slowly.
“Everyone who ends up in this godforsaken part of the world is going to Fija Nostra. What do you say Ruth, should we give him a ride?”
“He doesn’t have any—” Ruth stopped. Ali shook her head back and forth very slightly, like Ruth had said something wrong.
“That’s not our problem.”
“I’d like to hear more about his parents. Had to take some work to make him.”
“We could use an extra hand for the rigging. Do you know how to tie knots, Ben?”
I nodded. We left later that day, Ali pulling up the anchor and using her big stick to push the boat away from the beach. Ruth steered while Ali navigated. I asked how long the journey would be, and they told me we’d be sailing for at least a week.
There was plenty of work to do on board. I helped raise ropes and tie knots, even though I made them sloppy at first and they showed me how to do it better. One morning, Ali was cooking breakfast and asked me to fetch her some potatoes from the hold. I followed the cramped passage down to the belly of the ship. It led to a small chamber filled with cans and burlap sacks. Opening the sack I thought held the potatoes, I instead caught a flash of something shiny. It was full of gold bars. Puzzled, I stared for a moment before closing it again. I found the real potatoes and brought them up, then asked Ali what the gold was for. She told me not to worry about it, but I wondered.
After a few more days of sailing, Ruth said we were nearing Fija Nostra. I smelled the smoke before I saw it—sour, like rotten eggs. Then it appeared, rising from the island in plumes. As gray as the eyes of the grizzly had been. The smoke came from a rock formation that stretched across the entire island, low and flat, like a dinner plate. I asked Ruth if it was a volcano, and she nodded. Ali anchored the ship and we bobbed in the port, waiting. I imagined everything I would say to Mom once I found her.
At first, Fija Nostra looked like heaven. Lush tropical trees, lagoons and waterfalls, and straw huts dotted the shoreline. But there was also an unsettling quiet in the air. Only the cawing seabirds above made much noise. The smoke turned everything dark and overcast, throwing shadows across the island.
Before we even made it off the boat, a voice yelled: “Stop right there!”
A group of men waited at the edge of the pier. They wore crisp white shirts and brown pants, their skin tanned from the sun. All of them were quite large, and some carried long spears.
“Lazzies?” one of the men asked. Ali shouted back an affirmative.
“You have the fee?”
Ali pulled a gold bar from her cloak. She tossed it down and one of the men caught it.
“Plenty more in the hold.”
The man rubbed his hands over its smooth surface and nodded.
There was a terrific clanking noise, and a mechanical gangway extended from the dock. I started to follow it down to the shore, but one of the men blocked my way.
“Hold on. What’s a kid doing here?”
“He hitched a ride with us,” Ruth said nervously.
“You paying for him too?”
There was a silence.
“He’s not—he’s looking for his mother.”
“His mother?” The man turned around and had a short discussion with the others.
“Fine. You two come through. We’ll bring the boy into administration. Find out what his deal is. If he causes any trouble, send him to the brig.”
I didn’t know what a brig was, but the snarling way he said it made me think it couldn’t be good. Ali and Ruth waved goodbye to me as they passed, a strange sadness in their eyes, like they knew it was the last we’d see of each other.
One of the men led me off the docks, along a rising path overlooking the island. He wasn’t very friendly, prodding me along and cursing under his breath, but I was eager to see Mom, so I did what he said. Below, waves crashed into white foam. The higher we climbed, the better the view. My stomach buzzed with excitement, knowing Mom was nearby. Soon, we were beside the volcano. I smelled the rotten eggs, heard the hiss of steam, saw the gooey lava pooling in crevices. The volcano funneled up to a hole that belched thick gray smoke. Embers shot into the air and fell in slender glowing trails, like spider legs. Ahead, a boxy building rested on a flat plateau where the ridge leveled out.
Inside was a woman behind a desk, the same white shirt and dark skin as the rest. The man pointed at a bench.
“Sit,” he said. “Wait.”
I sat. The place was dreary. Yellow paint flaked off the walls and everything smelled stale and musty, like it hadn’t been cleaned in a while. The woman behind the desk kept glancing over at me, but she didn’t say anything. Other people in white shirts came in and out, and I could hear them whispering. I felt like a circus animal. Finally, I’d had enough. I’d never been very angry back on the mountain, but out in the world it seemed to happen a lot. I stormed over to the desk.
“I need your help,” I said. “I need to find my Mom.”
She paused. “I’m supposed to wait for word from my boss.”
“I don’t have time to wait!”
“Okay, okay!” She looked around nervously, like she was afraid of me. “I’ll go through the records. See if your mom’s been through here.”
I followed her into another room. It was full of shelves crammed with thick books and binders, pages spilling out every which way.
“I never seen a kid Lazzie before,” she said. “I didn’t even know there were any of you around.”
“Yeah, that’s for sure. What’s your mom’s name, son?”
“Ruby. Ruby Wells.”
“Wells. All right, give me a second.” She pulled some books from the shelves and flipped through them. I waited with my arms crossed. The woman ran her finger over the pages, then stopped. She made a weird sound.
“What is it?”
“Is this her?”
The woman turned the book to me. There she was! A picture of Mom. Curly red hair and tired eyes, but a beaming smile. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her smile like that back on the mountain. Beside her was a picture of Dad, his hair longer than I’d ever seen. I was overjoyed.
“Yes! That’s her. Where is she?”
“I’m sorry, kid. She got here a few months ago. She already…ascended.”
The lady looked at me like I was dumb.
“You know. She went into the volcano. That’s why Lazzies come here. Something about the chemicals in the lava. It’s the only way.”
“What are you saying?”
“Your mom is dead. She’s not coming back.”
A sinking feeling. Like when I’d been in the cave, with bats fluttering around me.
“No,” I said. “She can’t be dead. You must have made a mistake.”
“I thought everyone here knew…”
“No,” I said again. Everything suddenly went cold. Without another word, I turned and ran out of the building. Ahead, smoke belched up from the rocky funnel toward the overcast sky. If Mom had gone into the volcano, I would find her.
I raced along the ridge, ignoring a crowd of white shirts who had come out to watch me. The next thing I knew, I was at the mouth of the volcano, enveloped in smoke. Below, lava bubbled like stew in a pot. Mom had to be down there somewhere.
I jumped in.
The lava splashed up around me, rising to my knees. I struggled against it, like wading through steaming molasses. Fumes stung my eyes. Beyond was a gaping chasm, leading deeper into the volcano.
“Mom!” I yelled. “Where are you? Mom!”
Something was wrong with my legs, a bad feeling, like they were being etched away. My body sank lower into the lava, and I cried out. Someone called my name. The voice was familiar, but I couldn’t place it. My thoughts were jumbled and scattered, consumed by this horrible new sensation. Then a pair of hands lifted me up, out of the lava, carrying me away. I tried to fight, but all my strength had gone. Whoever was holding me was almost completely submerged, only the top of their head visible.
Tossed from the pit, I sprawled onto a hunk of glassy rock. The air felt unexpectedly cool, and I realized with a shock that the lava had burned my clothes off. As I covered myself in embarrassment, my rescuer stagger forward. I must have been seeing things, because the person who rose steaming and sizzling from the lava looked a lot like Dad. The man sank to his knees, gasping for air, and suddenly I knew this was no mirage. It was Dad. I never thought he’d leave the mountain, but I’d been wrong. He’d come to save Mom, just like me. My heart swelled with pride. I crawled toward him, but everything began to feel hazy, like a shade being drawn—
I came back together—or at least that’s what it felt like—in an underground cavern. The ceiling was so low that the attendant keeping watch could barely stand up straight. I was in a bed, wearing a gown made from palm fronds. A few beds over was Dad, covered in gauze and bandages. His face was charred, and his curly hair had been singed off. I felt awful. He looked like a monster, and it was my fault.
My legs still felt a little weird, but they worked. I went to Dad and he took my hand, smiling.
“That was a silly thing to do,” he said. “Too much of your Mom in you.”
“How did you—”
“I told you. Finding Ruby was my job. I was too late to save her. So I waited for you. The natives weren’t happy, but they let me stay, as long as I cleaned up for them. When word spread that a boy had jumped into the volcano, I knew.”
“Why?” My eyes were wet. “Why did Mom leave? Why did she go into the volcano?”
“Don’t blame your Mother. She wasn’t in her right mind. She’s at peace now. It’s better this way.”
“She didn’t even say goodbye.”
“She loved you, Ben. You have to be strong.”
“You can. You’ve always been that way. Like Mom.”
I sniffed. Dad squeezed my hand tighter.
“I’m fading, Ben. I can feel myself fading. I’m not afraid. I’ve lived many lives…and I got to have you. You’ll live many lives too.”
“Calm children are rarely born. And yet here you are. Here you are.”
Dad was mumbling, his words hard to make out. I tried to say more, but his eyes went funny and he stopped answering me. The lava had only come up to my knees, but Dad had been under it completely. The heat was too much, even for him. I waited at his side, I don’t know how long. By nightfall, Dad was gone. His body seemed to gleam, melding with the air before coming apart, until all that was left was a fine powder. A scent like honeysuckle in the valley.
I stood up, wiping my eyes. For the first time I noticed my legs were covered in rough, reddish markings that didn’t look like they were going away anytime soon.
“What are these?” I asked the attendant, who was pretending to be busy sweeping the floor.
The attendant looked down.
“One hell of a story,” he said. I couldn’t argue with that.
I emerged from the cavern to calm night breezes. Smells of fish, of sand, of salt. Ahead was the beach, dark and desolate.
How to describe what I felt? Sadness, and a strange sense of freedom. Mom and Dad were gone. But I was still here.
I thought of Daphne, her smile and green eyes, and my heart beat a little quicker. Maybe I would pay her a visit sometime. There was no rush. The world was very big, and there was much to see.
I walked toward the ocean until the water was lapping at my feet. I kept going.