“Aaaarrgghhh!” I bounced out of bed. He was at it again! “Dammit!” I yelled, streaking toward Weaver’s room to put a stop to the horrible noise that had jerked me from my sleep. I cursed and resolved to give the little bastard a beating he would never forget.
I burst in without knocking to see Weaver hanging upside-down from the ceiling, sucking on an apricot and bobbing his head to the music. He looked down at me as I busted in. A sheepish fanged smile found its way to his face, making him so cute that it was difficult to maintain an angry expression.
Rising up to his height, I made my eyes directly level with his, and I told him very sweetly that I would be forced to strangle him if he didn’t keep it down in the future. I tweaked the volume knob, then headed back to my room, mumbling halfway coherent curses under my breath. There was no point in trying to go back to sleep now that I was up, so I resigned myself to starting the day. I opened my closet and tried to decide what to wear.
It was more important to be dressed “right” if I was going out. Around the house it didn’t matter if my clothes were appropriate, or even if I was wearing anything at all. After all, Weaver never wore anything but his sword and its holder, and Thursday’s only clothing was his tiny fanny pack. But I didn’t like to run around naked most of the time, and besides, I thought clothes were fun. It was just annoying to have to wear them—to have any restrictions at all. But once I came back I could do whatever I wanted. I chose a plaid shirt and some blue jeans, then reluctantly put on shoes, too, almost as an afterthought. I figured that I’d never know when I’d need to be wearing shoes back on Earth.
I liked to think of the outside world as a completely different planet. As far as I was concerned, it was another world. It certainly seemed that way sometimes, since we were so separated from the outside. Our land by the sea was on the coast of North America somewhere, but that was all I really knew, and I didn’t honestly understand what that meant entirely anyway. Since it was beachfront property, some of the others had wondered why we weren’t invaded more often, though. We weren’t inhabiting an especially desirable vacation spot, because it was somewhat cold for a good chunk of the year, and the beach was grassy and rocky for the most part except right next to the ocean. Still, we were on the coast, so it seemed like someone would have wanted to settle here by now. I pondered the weirdness of it as I dressed in my room.
Opening my shutters to get an idea of the time, I was surprised to see several unfamiliar human children playing on our beach. I laughed when I saw them. It was funny that we’d been invaded just when I’d been thinking about how seldom we were invaded. I peered out the window and squinted at the group, not recognizing any of them, as expected. The ones we did kick off of our property very rarely came back. Adele’s theory held that our few and far between “visitors” were strayed tourists looking for isolated party spots. Well, they could party elsewhere. This beach was ours.
Over the years we’d tried many different routines to get rid of people. I’d come up with the first one myself, and the others had found it so amusing that we’d started incorporating other roommates into the fun. There wasn’t a lot of entertainment to be had way out here, so we had to make our own. Our methods had been refined over time, and we usually gave invaders a sporting chance to leave before we swept in to scare the crap out of them. I still had a part in the current routine. They needed me in case a bite was required after all the barking. I gazed at the scampering humans, feeling wicked. Enjoy it while you can, little boys, I thought. Somebody’s getting a spanking.
I completed my outfit with some suspenders to keep my jeans up, and then I closed the shutters. I liked my shutters; my room was the only one that had them, so they were something special Zeke had done just for me. I liked to think of them as decoration, but they were functional as well; they protected the windows from any weird things I did in my sleep. Just a burst of thunder could engage my startle reflex hard enough to break glass. I made a face somewhere between a smile and a grimace as I recalled the incidents when that had actually happened.
After pulling up the covers to make my bed, I wandered into the kitchen and stuck a slice of cheese in my mouth. As I ate my snack, I couldn’t help feeling the familiar tingle of anticipation starting in my stomach. It was always interesting to make an adventure out of meeting new people; I was looking forward to it. There was nothing like diving into a puddle of water and coming up into someone’s world.
I hadn’t been through the pool in a while, not since the last trips getting Zoe settled in. What bizarre place would it take me today? I remembered Adele calling it “North Carolina,” but who knew if that was even in the same country? Did they speak my language there? What if they had weird food? In any case it had to be pretty far away—out of the question for flying there myself. There were a few cities I could reach after flying for a while, but once Adele had figured out how to open the pool wherever she wanted I’d stopped doing that. It was handy to have a window to the outside right there in my house. It just took the distance out of the equation.
I’d never understood how the pool worked, and I doubted that any of us really did (except maybe Adele). She seemed to know everything, plus the pool was something she controlled. I’d gotten so used to it that I mostly viewed it as the only door to the outside world. Now and then I got reminders that we were part of the same world, like when we’d been building our house and all the building equipment we’d used had come here in a big truck from New York. And I knew that we all had to have come here originally from the outside world without even knowing about the pool. We hadn’t discovered it until about three years ago, so of course it couldn’t be the only way in or out. Still, it was easy to forget that since I used it all the time—just like I forgot about the existence of stairs—and since our house was so private and isolated, it was like the outside world couldn’t touch us.
I sat on the counter munching my cheese and watching the kids out the kitchen window. They were now shuffling around in the chest-deep water, apparently playing some sort of game I didn’t recognize. I didn’t recognize most human rituals, though. Sometimes they acted really weird. I thought about all the past experiences I’d had with human people, remembering some of the silly things they did on a regular basis. When I’d first met Bradleigh, one of our current roommates, she had refused to eat any meal without sitting in front of a television set. And some of the others I’d met in passing had odd ways of dressing or painting their faces that seemed totally inappropriate. I was relatively unfamiliar with regular people even though I was getting somewhat experienced with functioning in public places. I wondered about this new person I was going to meet and what sort of alien practices I might encounter this time.
Sometimes missions were fun. Sometimes they were a lot of work and I couldn’t wait until they were over. But even though I’d had some bad experiences, I looked forward to them, and today was no exception. What sort of doors would open for me this time? What new places would I see, what exotic foods would I get to try, what different environments would I experience?
No matter what, every mission meant acquiring a few more pieces to the puzzle of the human world. It sure was neat to learn about it, though I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be a part of it. But every time I brought a new person to our house to stay, a little more of the outside world slipped into my life. It had begun happening as soon as we’d gotten the house through my very first mission. *
It seemed to happen all at once one day: suddenly plans were in the works for us to build a house.
Probably it seemed so out of the blue to me because it was rare that I was ever included in decision-making processes, but one minute we were living like usual in our natural abode by the sea and the next minute we were talking about finding some guy to come build a foreign structure on our beach. I didn’t really see the point because I was happy the way things were, but the grown-ups always seemed to have good logical reasons for every harebrained idea they hatched.
“You’ll like having a house, Ivy, I promise you,” Adele said. “You don’t have to worry about bad weather, and you can get out of the sun when you want to.”
I shrugged. “I don’t see what’s wrong with crawling in the cave when it’s raining. And I like the sun.”
“You’ve got to admit it sometimes gets a little crowded in there.”
Hmm. In the years since Tab and Thursday had joined our company, I supposed they made the cave seem a lot smaller. “I guess.”
“You’ll like it. You can even have your own room.”
“What do I do with a room?”
“Well, you can put your stuff in it.”
“Ohhh.” Adele and the others were always mad at me for collecting junk and expecting to keep it in the cave. If I had my own room to do with as I wanted, they couldn’t tell me what to put in it.
“Well, whatever,” I said to her. I thought it sounded pretty cool even though I couldn’t really picture it, but what really had me worried was that Alix was so in favor of it too. He’d spent a lot of his life living in houses and had been periodically complaining about not having one since I could remember. It made sense to be wary of anything Alix liked.
Finally pushed into agreeing to the plan, I helped Adele with her divination, which was very new to both of us then. We’d only recently discovered that she could entice my energy to perform for her in this special situation—and it was exciting because it was a type of prediction that had always eluded Adele before. With my help, she was able to pull up information connecting a person, a place, and a situation to the point where she could see possibilities in a set of circumstances we had nothing to do with. And that was how we found Robert.
Robert was a sad, rich man with a distinguished face and an abstract mind. He wanted very much to write poetry and paint pictures, but he was so terribly analytical that he had no artistic style whatsoever. He’d try to write a song and would end up becoming frustrated by his lack of musical ability. He’d try to make a sculpture and come up with a featureless lump of clay. He had tried his hand at every artistic discipline he could think of, yet he still hadn’t found one that worked for him. He’d finally admitted to himself that he’d never do anything of artistic value . . . which had sent him toward drinking and depression.
Robert worked with a construction company as an executive architect; he planned custom houses for rich people. He designed them so they were perfect to the millimeter, and with style as well. It was the closest he could come to realizing his dream to create; within the confines of mathematics and measurement, he could create things of value. But his more fluid artistic desires still tugged at him, and he didn’t have the means to express them. His current issue involved wanting to create something artistic for his wife on their twentieth anniversary, which was quickly approaching when we caught sight of him.
“So we’re gonna invite him to come visit us?” I asked when we found this out. It seemed fishy. Robert was a human, and part of the small amount of knowledge I had about humans was that I was supposed to stay away from them.
“Not exactly,” Adele said. “We’re going to send him a little welcoming party of one.”
“You’re going to go get him?” I asked.
“No,” she said with a smile. “You are.”
I got elected as the group’s little diplomat. For this first mission I didn’t want to go into the other world by myself because it scared me and I thought I had better things to do. But since the only members of our group with fairly human looks were Alix and me, it was narrowed down very quickly, and Adele said strangers weren’t as threatened by females. Adele also insisted that it had to be done by just one person rather than two or more, because with even one extra person it would be overwhelming and perhaps too scary for Robert.
“But how come Alix can’t do it?” I protested, wrestling with a low-grade fear that felt totally unfamiliar. Adele sounded like her mind was made up, and when Adele made her mind up everyone had to do what she wanted.
“Why do you want Alix to go instead of you?” Adele asked. “You have the ability to get there quickly and easily, and you have a built-in defense system if you encounter any trouble.”
“But what the hell do I know about the human world?” I couldn’t believe this was even happening. “Alix has all kinds of experience and I have practically zilch. I’ll just screw it all up and ruin it for you all.”
“You know more than you think you do. And this isn’t going to be very difficult. Robert is waiting for a miracle answer. There are very few ways that you could present it without a positive reaction.”
“And what am I supposed to do?”
“Convince him that we can help him with his problem if he helps us with ours.” Adele patted my back as I scowled. “Don’t be scared about it. Besides, no one else here can do it like you.”
Normally I got mad when people tried to dump extra work on me because of my abilities; it usually sounded really fishy, like they were just trying to get out of doing things themselves. I’d been guilt-tripped into gathering food or carrying people and things around for as long as I could remember, and after a while I had begun to notice that none of these things were expected of other people. So I’d become quite wary of my companions trying to use me. But for some reason, in this situation, the suggestion that I was essential to the mission both flattered me and made sense. I accepted my new job without too much whining and prepared for my foray into the unknown.
After Adele had filled me in on all of Robert’s background information and anything else she thought was relevant, I went to the other world through the pool for the first time. Some of the others had been through before, but until that first mission I’d shied away from it—I didn’t really like going underwater. I swallowed my fear, though, and made it through into a dazzling alternate reality, or so it seemed. I had never been in a city on my own before, and it was only thanks to advice from Alix and Adele that I managed to avoid getting myself killed.
First of all, they’d told me, I had to remember to fly as little as possible, since the people there apparently thought it was scary or annoying, I wasn’t sure which. They made it very clear that I had to try not to be seen flying, and that I shouldn’t use my energy if I could help it. According to them, my everyday way of doing things was so unusual that people would freak out if they saw it. I was allowed to show Robert because our being unusual was part of what would draw him in, but with anyone else I ran into, it needed to stay a secret. I resented that a little bit but I accepted it, assuming they were just overreacting. Though I did wonder just how the hell they expected me to go anywhere without flying.
Secondly, I had to learn to get around in the maze of a city while keeping my distance and remaining inconspicuous. Alix had toyed with the idea of me wearing some kind of disguise so I wouldn’t attract attention because of my looks, but Adele said I was fine and that in this case it might even work for me while dealing with Robert. I didn’t really know what they were talking about at the time, but I did briefly wonder what could be wrong with my appearance. My companions and I looked so radically different from each other that it was hard to imagine what a standard might be.
So, I found myself in the land of the humans. Even though I was unfamiliar with the urban world, I caught on quickly as my natural resourcefulness kicked in. I acclimated myself with the city a little bit, exploring by walking around small parts of it, then jumping to different parts through partially-concealed ascents and careful flying.
I did a little people-watching, too, and I didn’t get a lot of detail since I couldn’t get too close, but I noticed the adults were all around the same size, none tiny like Weaver and Thursday or really big like Dax. At least I fit in in that department. They all wore clothes and didn’t have fur except on their heads, which was a good sign. All different hair colors and styles—I couldn’t discern a standard for that—but quite a few had my same sort of honey-colored hair. Their bodies came in lots of shapes, mostly the same three or four skin colors, and all that I saw had two legs, two arms, and no wings or anything. I really did look a lot like them.
Feeling relieved and sort of brave, I put our plans into action. My safest bet to get Robert’s attention, according to Adele and Alix, was to sneak into his workplace and leave a note on his desk with a request to meet me for lunch somewhere. Food, they said, tended to disarm people, and this guy was pretty much the boss of the place so he could leave whenever he wanted and for as long as he wanted. Somehow this would make a better impression on him than slipping strange notes into his own home.
I wrote him a nice letter in my best handwriting, suggesting a restaurant I’d seen on the way—a nearby one since I had to remember he couldn’t fly. I also wrote in the letter that I could help him with his problems, and hoped that would entice him sufficiently. As a man who was hoping for a miracle, Robert wouldn’t be able to help but respond to my mysterious note. I opened his seventh-story window easily, slipped the note onto his desk when he wasn’t there, and went to wait.
He responded in less than fifteen minutes. I saw him enter the restaurant and look around; I recognized him from seeing his image in the pebble divination. I’d seen enough humans in my wanderings to determine that my hair was an unusual length and style, so I’d mentioned my long blonde braids in my letter, figuring that would be enough description for him to find me. But he didn’t see me immediately, so I stood up and waved him over, doing the same hand motion Adele always used when she wanted me to come to her. It worked; Robert came out of his daze and met me at my table.
Robert didn’t say anything when he sat down; he just sat there staring at me. That being my first time seeing a human at close range and face to face, I wasn’t sure initially why he was staring, so I stared back. We were very different, but I had no idea which differences fell within the parameters of normal. I found out much later that his skin seemed looser than mine only because he was older, and that he grew hair above his lip because he was a man—girls didn’t get mustaches. But for all I knew at the time, every difference between us had the possibility of singling me out as strange in the human world.
Well, something about me had to be weird, because Adele and Alix had talked about it and then Robert definitely stared at me. He didn’t make any comments, though, or ask me anything. I could think of a few questions about his appearance that I wanted to ask him, especially about his lack of hair and the contraption he wore on his nose (later I found out it was called “glasses,” and no one at home had those). But I figured talking about our physical differences would be a very silly way to start a conversation. Maybe he figured the same thing.
Robert broke the silence. “What do you say I get us some lunch?”
I thought this was odd because we hadn’t even introduced ourselves yet. And I wasn’t very keen on eating food from this world since I didn’t know the first thing about what it was like or what it was made of, not to mention that something in the restaurant had a very weird smell.
“You don’t have to do that.”
As if he hadn’t heard me, he got up and stood in a line to get some of the restaurant’s food. Maybe he thought I was just being polite by refusing him. Or maybe—even more likely—humans were every bit as weird as I’d always expected.
When Robert returned, he had little packages that exuded the restaurant’s funny smell, and he gave me one of them, along with a funny cup with a straw and some other odd-looking things that didn’t resemble any kind of food I’d ever eaten. The stuff actually smelled kind of appetizing on second thought, though, so I decided it was probably safe. Not to mention that he was eating it, too.
I watched him for a moment, observing the way he ate so I could copy. He unwrapped a bunch of rustling paper around the food and picked it right up with his hands. I couldn’t even tell if he was eating meat or a plant or what, but he seemed to like it so I unwrapped mine too and just kind of waited to get the nerve to try it. I noticed he looked a lot more comfortable now that he had something to do with his hands. I remembered my manners and thanked him for the food, but he didn’t acknowledge it and just pulled out a rumpled piece of paper.
It was my note. “What’s this about?”
I blinked at his abruptness once again, but decided I might as well go along with it and explain.
“I heard about your art problems and your thing with the present for your wife. I’m here to help you with it in any way I can, and I’m gonna ask you to help me in return.”
“My present . . . for my wife?” His eyes were wide, his food forgotten.
I nodded. “The anniversary gift? The thing that’s driving you bonkers? That’s about all I know, you would love to do art but you can’t . . . I don’t know, act out your vision. So I’m gonna help you out.”
Robert sat there and looked at me again for a moment. This time I was conscious of trying to keep my expression neutral and my eyes attentive but not focused on him. Even the people at home had historically disliked meeting my eyes, and they were used to me. Adele had warned me that Robert might get defensive and uneasy at the idea of a random girl mysteriously knowing things about his life; it seemed she was right. Surprise.
After a few confused seconds, Robert’s eyes softened, and he told me that he would be pleased to negotiate if I would just satisfy his curiosity and tell him where I’d come from. I didn’t have a name for it, so I had difficulty telling him, but I did mention that I’d come through some bizarre water portal—at the time that was pretty wild to me too. From there he ended up asking me if I was even human. His tone of voice was like he was telling a joke even though it seemed he wasn’t sure how I’d answer. I thought that was a very silly question, and I told him that of course I wasn’t human.
From then on, it seemed like he thought of me as something from a fairy tale. I frequently caught him looking at me like he couldn’t believe I was there. I found it annoying, but I tried not to show it since I was asking for his help. When he eventually met the others, the initial shock of their appearances hadn’t seemed to affect him anywhere near as much. That didn’t make much sense to me, because I just looked not quite human and most of the others looked like they were at least half something else. But then again, he had been expecting unusual people by then. I had just shown up on his turf, so to speak. Getting used to me wasn’t easy after living in a rational world. I tried not to worry about it.
“I’ll show you . . . what I’ve been planning,” Robert said, taking a rumpled paper out of his wallet. It was on strange blocky paper and sketched in pencil: a blueprint-like diagram of a painting he’d been trying to create. He explained to me that each symbol had been inserted for some sentimental reason only his wife would understand, but despite the creativity put into the design, he hadn’t been able to paint it. He’d tried several times, and even his best was terrible. As he told me about it, he sounded more and more dejected, seeming to practically doubt his own self-worth based on his inability to create it.
“Hey, can I see the painting you did?”
“It’s at my house. I . . . guess I can take you there.” He laughed nervously.
“Okay, cool, let’s go.” I stood up but he stayed seated.
“You haven’t touched your lunch.”
“Is there something wrong?” He leaned forward. “Is the food something your kind can’t eat?”
I laughed at that but my cheeks suddenly felt hot. I realized I felt embarrassed. Why? “I think I could eat it, but I’ve just never seen anything like this before. We don’t have food like this.”
“Then try it, it’s actually quite good.” He pointed at the various consumables. “This is a hamburger. Those are french fries. And this is just a cup of water.”
“Oh, we have water where I’m from.” I looked at the suspicious long yellow things. “But definitely not ‘french fries.’ What are these things made out of?”
He laughed. “Potatoes. They’re french fried potatoes.”
Since I still didn’t know what potatoes were, I got him to explain the whole thing to me. He seemed to get a kick out of my reactions. Apparently potatoes were a lot like some nameless bulb-like vegetables where I lived, except cut up and cooked in oil. And the hamburger was “beef,” which was an animal I’d never seen called a cow. And that was also cut up and cooked, except this one got put on this bun thing with a bunch of gook and some leaves. He actually started to go into explaining the bun to me but I kind of knew what bread was so I told him so and made him stop lecturing me.
“Now that you know the whole history of your meal, let’s see what you think of the taste,” Robert teased me, and I saw no choice but to eat it. I picked up the hamburger first and bit into it like he had, surprised by the taste but quite appreciative. It tasted very good and a little too oily, but I liked the crunchy lettuce and the surprising tang of the tomato, and even though the sauce made my tongue hurt a little I thought it tasted pretty good. The fries were even better, though saltier than anything I’d ever eaten. I drained the water cup as well, pleased to report that I already knew how to use a straw, and Robert finally looked satisfied. He cleaned up the remnants of the meal and fed them to a box with a hatch, and then he led me outside and over to his work building, where we encountered his car.
I realized for the first time that all humans must have one of these, and that was the reason they could travel between their homes and faraway places. I had seen the cars on the road already, but I simply hadn’t connected them to transportation in my head. It was something of an epiphany, and I exclaimed, “So that’s how you guys get around!” He asked me what my people’s mode of transportation was, and I told him that it depended on which one of us he asked.
Robert took me to a musty structure full of odds and ends that he called his garage, where he showed me the painting. I could see a slight resemblance between his blueprint and what he was trying to create, but that was all. His sheer lack of applicable technique had made the painting a total globby mess. It was like a child’s drawing with none of the appeal. I winced.
A weird vision came to my mind then: I pictured the design on the blueprint as a beautiful six-foot brocade. Most of his shapes were geometric and uncomplicated, and I thought it would make a much better tapestry than a painting. The very simplicity that made it look stupid in acrylic paint would make it look distinguished in string. I turned to Robert and suggested we change the medium to weaving.
His eyes lit up as I suggested that, and he agreed emphatically. “You know how to weave?”
“I’m sure I could do it.”
We traveled within his car again, this time to a store where decorating and craft supplies were sold. I played with his power door locks and windows on the way, thinking that it was funny how humans had little devices to move stuff out of their reach. It was a nice substitute.
When we got there and saw all the humans going in and out and milling around, I got uncomfortable. For some reason I was suddenly worried that people might stare if they got a good look at me, and my first stirrings of self-consciousness were almost overwhelming after a lifetime without feeling it.
“So should I stay in the car?” I asked, looking down.
“Why would you want to do that?”
I didn’t want to tell him that I was beginning to feel so weird as a non-human among humans. How could he understand how alien it felt? Plus it was maddening to not know where their eyes would linger; I almost wanted to come out and ask Robert what about me didn’t match. But I just settled for a lame excuse, saying I didn’t know what buildings in this world would allow me inside and thought better to ask. He seemed to find that hilarious, for some reason, and told me of course I needed to come in, to help him choose his supplies.
Robert bought a weaving loom and many colors of thread. He took forever to decide on which ones he wanted, and he ended up choosing about eight different shades of each. I watched him pay for them, and then he took me back to his garage. He explained the concept of money to me at my request as we drove back. I thought it was weird, like a trade system with a middleman.
“You know,” I told him as he opened his garage, “you never asked me my name.” I brought it up because I thought it was strange that he’d asked me all sorts of other questions, but never asked me to introduce myself.
He blinked. “You signed your letter, though,” he said. “Your name is Ivy, right?”
“Good memory,” I replied. “Okay, we’re introduced, then. Do you want get started?”
“How do you propose we do this? I don’t know very much about weaving.”
“Well,” I said, “you’re going to have to direct me; tell me what colors go to what shapes, and I’ll weave it for you.”
I went to the loom and tore its protective wrapping off, then I began unwrapping the threads.
“You go ahead and set up,” he told me, “and I’ll get us some drinks.”
He opened a door, and immediately I felt a cool blast of air. Shivering, I wondered what made it so cold inside Robert’s house. I was used to low temperatures because I spent a lot of time in the upper limits of the sky, but the sky’s coldness was different somehow, and I always reached it much more gradually besides. He closed the door behind him and I heard his footsteps echoing as he walked into his house. It had to be pretty big inside, judging from the sound his steps made. I looked around his garage for a few seconds, then turned to the loom and created a tightly-woven grid with the coarse, brownish background thread. I let it unwind from the spool as I directed it to weave in and out of itself, and finished up with all the usual preparations.
Looking at Robert’s blueprint as I waited for his return, I wondered if I’d be able to convey what he wanted. I’d never woven anything artistic before, but I knew it could be done, since it used to be one of Adele’s hobbies. Normally she’d used her loom to weave functional things for us, and she’d taught me that skill without much difficulty. But once in a while she’d make something pretty, something that was obviously more for the fun of making it than for practical use. I’d never seen reason to waste time on ornamentation, but Adele focused on it with such patience and dedication that it seemed she thought she had all the time in the world.
Adele had always known lots of solitary arts. It was probably because her unusual physical characteristics made interaction with the outside world impractical. If a forest bear and a human could successfully mate, their offspring might resemble her; even I could tell she wouldn’t fit in on this side of the pool. She didn’t have sharp teeth or anything, and her face didn’t have that animal look that bears had because her nose didn’t stick out very much, but she definitely resembled a bear in some ways. It was probably her ears and her brown peach-fuzz fur that made me think that. But she did have a human frame, and unlike regular animals the hair on her head grew long, like mine, like the humans’ hair did.
Her unusual combination of features had never looked odd to me, of course. I was used to seeing pictures in books that depicted characters who looked a lot more like me, but I’d never thought it necessarily meant my companions were strange. Maybe I just didn’t have a book with their kind in them—that was what I’d always figured. But now, after my people-watching, I could see what I’d been missing. We all came close to human to greater and lesser extents, but some of my friends’ human characteristics were slightly off. Tab might have regular human hands, but most people’s extremities didn’t seem to end in thick claws. Alix looked like anyone else from far away, but close observers’ critical eyes would never miss the wispy webs between his fingers or the subtle scaliness of his skin. And Adele—sure her hair was a lot like the humans’ pretty manes, but I had yet to see her dark red color in this outside world; the closest I’d seen yet was a kind of weak orange. So many differences stood out to me now, even while my subtler ones remained a mystery. But none of it mattered to me. I thought Adele was beautiful. There was something undeniably attractive about her. Part of it was her timeless quality that made her seem like she’d always been around; I had no idea how old she was, but she sure knew a lot.
And she was a good teacher. The artistic lessons had always been my favorites, especially when I came up with a practical object at the end, but Adele had attempted to teach me plenty of other things too. Sometimes she hadn’t been very successful because I wasn’t always receptive to learning, and no one had had the guts to try to tell me what to do when I was dead set against it, especially during my childhood. If I didn’t feel like something applied to me, I either refused to learn it or forgot it soon after disregarding it as unimportant. But reading and writing had stuck with me (barely), and so had all the arts I’d been able to apply in my life. I’d woven to make imperfect blankets and things, but I was nervous since this was going to be my first time trying to make it artistic. What if I screwed up? What if I was worse at art than Robert? Well, I’d deal with that if it happened. And get Adele to fix it for me.
The door opened with another cool out-rush of air, and Robert emerged holding two glasses. They were filled with a peculiar-looking brown liquid.
“This is soda,” he explained, holding up one of the glasses. “I assumed you’ve probably never had this before, either,” he added. I supposed he was referring to my previous unfamiliarity with the food. I nodded. He looked at the base grid for the brocade and expressed surprise at how quickly I had gotten it done.
“I thought this kind of thing took hours,” he said, sipping his drink. I came over to try mine, and upon taking a swig, something frothy filled up my entire head and made my ears itch and my eyes water. I swallowed with difficulty and put the glass down on a wobbly table, coughing. I felt like I was going to fall over.
“What is this?” I demanded, wiping my face.
“It’s just soda. Kids your age drink it all the time.”
I wondered how he knew how old I was. I certainly didn’t.
I stuck my fingers in my ears and wiggled them, unable to shake the feeling that there was electricity behind my eardrums. He watched me with an amused look on his face. I wondered what he thought was so damn funny.
“Don’t take such a big gulp,” Robert suggested, and upon taking his advice, I found the carbonated drink much easier to swallow. He apologized for overlooking my naïveté, seeming overly concerned. I told him not to worry about it and asked him which shade of red he wanted the sun to be in his brocade. He chose one, and I went up to the base grid and pointed to a spot near the left corner.
“So the sun goes right here?” I asked, consulting the blueprint.
“Maybe a little more to the right,” he answered, sitting down in a rickety wooden chair.
“Here?” I repeated, reaching.
Robert smiled thoughtfully and nodded.
“All right, then . . . here I go.” Adele had said I was “allowed” to use my energy in front of Robert, so of course I was going to, for this. I stepped back and held out the red-colored weaving string, then directed it to the place Robert had indicated. It took all of two seconds to weave a perfect round red sun. I turned around for approval to see Robert standing very close to me, staring at the sun I’d just made.
“That okay?” I asked, wondering if he’d been frightened by how I’d woven the sun. Maybe I ought to have said something to explain to him how I was going to do it before I surprised him with my energy. But I didn’t really even know how; I’d never had to explain myself. My world consisted of seven other people who had known about me forever. And even though I was the only one of us who could move things without touching them, I just thought it was my special thing, like Alix and his unique ability to breathe underwater. But apparently Robert didn’t share my opinion that nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Maybe he’d never even heard of someone like me. Maybe I was as rare as Adele said and it wasn’t just a scare tactic.
“What you just did there . . . that was some kind of telekinesis, wasn’t it?” He looked down at me.
I frowned. “Is that bad?”
“No. . . . ” He exhaled loudly and stepped back. “I was prepared for surprises, you said you weren’t human, but still. . . . ” He took a long drink of his soda and sat down again. The way he downed it like that made me think maybe there was more in that glass than just soda. I was somewhat puzzled. I put down my string.
“Is it okay? What’s wrong?” I asked, feeling absurdly embarrassed.
“Nothing,” he said, looking up. “Can you move anything you want to?”
Surprised, I answered, “Sure.”
“How much weight can you lift?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “I never found anything I couldn’t lift. I don’t think I have a weight limit.”
“You could lift my car?”
“Yeah, I think so.” I didn’t see any reason why I wouldn’t be able to.
“Can you lift yourself?”
“Uh-huh,” I replied, promptly floating off the ground to show him. Then, anticipating his next question, I added, “I can pick up anything that I can see or anything I can touch. I just call it my energy.”
“So you need visual or kinesthetic feedback to make it work?”
“I don’t know,” I said, blinking at his language and lowering myself to the ground.
“Can you do anything else?”
“Like what?” Breathing, walking? But I didn’t say it.
“Do you have any other extra abilities?”
“Extra?” I supposed it could be seen that way.
“I don’t know, like teleportation or clairvoyance?”
“I don’t know what that means,” I replied, “but do you want to talk all day, or do you want me to finish your brocade?”
“Ah . . . oh, yes. I almost forgot.”
I created the tapestry under Robert’s instructions, and as I wove, he told me what he’d meant by those strange words. I told him that some of the things he said were silly notions because they were impossible, but he shut me up by telling me that most people would say the same thing about what I could do. I figured he had to be exaggerating; there had to be other people like me, there was no way I could be one of a kind, not in this whole big world. He argued that point with me as I finished up his brocade. It was easier than I had imagined. I supposed it had only looked difficult when Adele did it since she had to do everything with her hands.
When it was done, he told me I had made his dreams possible and expressed extreme gratitude, looking like he was about to cry. He looked my handiwork over again and again, staying silent until I actually got bored. Then finally he turned to me and said he would be glad to help me any way he could.
I told him about my group’s need for a good, solid home. Then I said that if he would be willing to design a house and help us to get the proper building materials, my friends and I would serve him however he needed us to.
“What skills do your friends have?” he asked, looking interested.
“My friend Neptune can make herself invisible. It’s a valuable skill,” I protested as he frowned. I guessed that wasn’t the kind of skills he meant.
I ended up taking him back to “my world” through the pond I had come out of, so that he could meet my people and determine their usefulness to him. He looked a little dubious when I told him that jumping into a pond truly would take us there, but he went along with it anyway, saying that he’d believe anything after what he’d seen today. I chose not to be offended by that and led him to the tunnel.
Alix had constructed a tube passageway out of some interlocking plastic barrels. That made it much easier to locate and reach the silvery circle of water at the bottom of the lake, which was the gate to home. I had to pick Robert up and bring him down with me because there was no other way to get down yet. After a while of doing these missions, we’d come up with a way to attach a ladder to the inside of the tube so that people besides me could go in and out of it. It would have been rather annoying if I had to fly everyone in and out of the tunnel every time they needed to go anywhere.
We both popped up in the familiar pool, in what would soon be the ground floor of our house. Alix was lounging in the pool, his blonde hair floating on the surface. As we came up, he began a sentence welcoming me back, then broke off with a distasteful, “What is that?”
I frowned at Alix. Honestly, it wasn’t like he’d never seen a human before; according to him, he’d spent most of his life with them. Deciding to ignore his rudeness, I introduced Robert.
It turned out that no one had been expecting me to bring him back so fast. They had expected me to do most of the preliminary negotiations on his turf, not ours. But I hadn’t known that; I wouldn’t have even known where to begin. They had anticipated me having to work on Robert for several days before he would be comfortable enough or trusting enough to visit our home. In any case, I hadn’t banked on having that difficulty, so I hadn’t let it get in my way. Now Robert was on our beach, and he could negotiate with people who knew what they were talking about.
I spotted Neptune nearby, up in a tree watching us. I joined her, asking her to help me get everyone together so we could all talk with Robert. Asking for Neptune’s help was rather futile, but we liked to include her whenever we could, and sometimes she seemed to respond a little bit. Her autism made it necessary to treat her a lot like a little kid. This time she snapped out of her own little universe long enough to follow me around as I looked for the others, and she seemed to understand that we’d accomplished something whenever we found someone. Finally we gathered together, a grand total of eight.
Robert was startled when Weaver rushed right at me, but other than that he stayed mostly calm and nonchalant. I held my best friend in my arms as I waited for everyone to get settled.
“Who’s the freak, Ivy?” Weaver joked in a whisper.
“You’ll find out in a minute,” I replied. Once everyone was paying attention, we got down to business. When it became apparent that Robert was totally willing to go out of his way to help us, we got pretty excited. Years of living on the beach had taken their toll on most of us, and we were ready to at least try this other lifestyle Alix was always talking about. Everything was falling into place, just like Adele had said it would.
We finally agreed that Robert would get us the materials and draw us the blueprint out of his own pocket. He wouldn’t accept any other terms. He said he was well-off enough to afford it easily, and that the materials would be cheaper than a normal house because of his connections, and plus no company would be taking a cut through him this time. On top of that, there’d be no labor costs. Robert’s coaching, a blueprint, and my energy were the only tools I’d need to build the house myself.
Alix especially thought his generosity was suspicious. But Robert didn’t want us to try to pay him back. He seemed very eager to help us, almost as if he felt honored that we’d asked him of all people. All Robert wanted from us was permission to come and visit, and ask us for favors if he ever needed to. He maintained that my energy—my telekinesis, as he called it—could be quite useful for a lot of things he could think of. Useful, that was an understatement.
So, we got to planning the house. Adele had only a few specifications: the special pool should be incorporated into our house, and there needed to be at least some dirt floor left because she needed a “connection to the Earth,” and it needed to have tons of bedrooms so that we could have more people move in. Alix added that we needed a structure that would allow for indoor plumbing and water pipes, though we planned to invite a specialist to hook us up with that. We didn’t plan to get electricity or any temperature regulation; any gizmos we wanted could be run on batteries or generators or alternate sources. I didn’t care what it was like; I just wanted to build it and live in it already.
Robert based his idea for our house on what he called a college dorm, and basically threw together a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a bedroom-lined hallway. Then the pool was surrounded with a fence of brick to keep the light out (more of Adele’s input there), and the living quarters were plopped right on top, connected by a staircase through a trapdoor. He said it was a weird structure. I just thought of it as home.
I worked on the house for two whole days. It was fun but exhausting; bricklaying was kind of amusing, but the concentration required in some of the repetitive work ended up giving me a weird headache. I also got a sunburn for the second time in my life while I was making the house. But my pains were rewarded: at the end of the second day there was a good-sized building on our beach, and I had put it there. It was ugly, unpainted, half brick and half wood, unfinished. But it was ours. I couldn’t remember ever having such a sense of achievement before. *
Ever since Robert had fixed us up with the house, we’d been slowly acquiring appliances, products, and money through the missions. So far I’d brought five women and three men to our home, and they got to live there without a set rent if they agreed to cover the cost of our expenses with the money they made at their jobs. We didn’t have many expenses, so it didn’t take much. Everyone I’d found was surprisingly willing to throw their money into our cookie jar just for the privilege of living with us. For some reason, certain kinds of people liked living with us very much; it seemed that they thought our world was like a fantasy, and it was their escape from reality. I supposed, after living in a world like theirs, going through water portals and seeing people fly through the air was refreshing. I guessed anything was exotic if it wasn’t the norm at home.
Our first hand-picked house members were chosen for specific purposes. Robin became our live-in nanny/maid, and Zeke came next to get everything in order. As Zeke installed the plumbing and gizmos for our unique non-electric house, Robin taught us how to live in it. With a wood-burning stove we could now cook inside, and we could keep food cold in Zeke’s refrigerator thing. When we got our third roommate, Peyton, our house was transformed by carpet and decorations; even though she was a restaurant manager by trade, the girl’s talents were definitely in interior design. After her came Bradleigh, Cecily, Keenan, and Perry—primarily just average money-contributors, picked by Adele for their open-mindedness and other qualities. It had only been maybe a month since we’d brought in our latest roommate, Zoe, who worked in a skating rink and was straight out of high school.
It had been a couple of years, by my estimation, since we’d first built the house, but even though it seemed in the distant past, I could remember it all very well. Everything had begun to move so quickly after meeting Robert. It was a sharp contrast to my childhood, which had seemed like one long changeless day filled with playing and carving out a living. Definite events helped me to mark the passage of time in a more concrete fashion. Which reminded me that time was now ticking away, and I had a job to do. I had a date with the other world.
With a backward glance at the ocean, I hopped off the counter and ambled back into my room. I slipped on some more beaded jewels and gaudy plastic rings, just because I felt more presentable if I was colorful. Then I opened my shutters again and looked at the invading kids once more, watching as they continued to frolic in the muggy, post-storm waves. I shook my head, knowing that we had to choose the people who came here, not the other way around.
“Ivy!” called Robin from the kitchen. “There’s people outside. . . . ”
“You’re just now noticing this?” I teased. I joined her in the kitchen.
“Well, are you ready to get rid of them?” A mischievous glint awoke in her ocean-colored eyes. I smiled and watched her walk out the door and onto the beach, toward the six teenage boys.
Time for our routine. I was supposed to come out after the kids had sneered, as they usually did, at Robin’s insistence that this was private property. Here was their chance to leave while they could. I heard catcalls and actually saw a couple of them give her the finger, so I opened the door and went to stand at Robin’s side, right at the shoreline.
The boys were quite a ways out, and it would have been difficult to catch them by ordinary means. I checked over my shoulder to make sure Dax was hiding in the bushes where he was supposed to be . . . and he was, crouched behind the leaves like a quiet sphinx. I could see his shiny red eyes.
At this distance, I was sure the boys couldn’t tell that I wasn’t human, so I acted as if I was.
“Hey Robin,” I said loudly, so they could hear, “you did warn them about the monster, didn’t you?”
“Oh,” she said exaggeratedly, “no, I didn’t. Boys, I’m afraid there’s a monster living right here on the premises, and if you don’t get out of here, we’ll be forced to feed you to him.”
Of course, they thought we were bluffing, and so they threw themselves wholeheartedly into the task of ridiculing us.
Robin turned to me, muttering, “Damn kids. They should be in school.” She winked at me. “Maybe then they’d learn not to mess with us.”
I laughed, even though I didn’t really understand what she meant about going to school. I didn’t blame the boys for laughing at us. If I were one of them, I wouldn’t believe that there was a monster here either. The boys pretended to be scared, hugging each other and saying inane things like, “Oh, Mikey, save me! I’m afraid of the monster!”
After they’d finished their jeering and fake expressions of fear, Robin shrugged and said, “You asked for it! We’re feeding you to the monster!”
“Come get us, gramma!” one of them shouted.
“Hmph,” said Robin quietly.
“Yeah, what’re you gonna do about it?” called another obnoxious boy. Robin rolled her eyes.
“You wanna see what I’m gonna do about it?” I asked. They just laughed. “Oh, well, you asked for it . . . here I come,” I warned. They stopped having to fake their fear when I came toward them, making it look like I was walking on top of the water. It would have been much easier to catch them without actually coming to get them, but I enjoyed the shock value. It was a nice touch.
The boys stared at me for a second, trying to figure out if they were actually seeing such an impossible thing. I knew that look pretty well. Once they realized it wasn’t a trick, they panicked and tried to run, but running in the water was much more difficult than what I was doing. As I reached each one, I picked him up by the arm and pulled him up with me, enveloped in my field. I dragged them to shore, ignoring their verbal and physical threats and struggles. I set them down, but didn’t let them out of my grasp.
“Oh, no,” I shouted, “here comes the monster!” I set them free at the very same moment that Dax burst forth from the bush, growling, snarling, and doing his best demon imitation. Dax chased them down the beach, running on all fours like a lion, and I supposed they screamed all the way back to wherever they had come from.
Dax came back only a few minutes later, laughing and panting. Robin and I snickered. We made fun of the kids for a little bit, then we all went back inside together. Dax went up for a snack, Robin went back to her book, and I went to Adele’s room to wake her up.
She opened her eyes and sat up just as I entered her doorway, before I even said anything to her.
“’Morning, Adele,” I said. “I’m ready for my mission!” I bounced lightly on my toes as I waited for her to finish stretching and wiping the sleep from her eyes.
“Well, you’re sure in a good mood,” she said as she began to make her bed.
“’Course I am,” I replied. “Meeting people is fun!” She smoothed the wrinkles out of the sheet with the speed of a turtle and then started in on the blanket. She still had a bedspread to go. At this rate I wasn’t going to make it to this Ridgefield place before dark. Impatiently, I snatched the bedclothes with my energy and hastily made her bed for her, finishing in about five seconds. She looked at me in surprise, then smiled.
“Thanks, dear,” she said. I plopped the pillow at the head of the bed and walked briskly toward the door. I wished she would hurry up. Adele and I went down to the ground floor and sat by the pool, where she called up the image again and let me look this time. But that had to be wrong. I was seeing some little girl.
“Her name’s Nina Fairchild, and she’s a seven-year-old, a first grader at the elementary school.”
I looked at her, aghast.
“A seven-year-old? A kid?” I squawked. “We need a kid here?” Always before, my missions were to find people who could help our financial situation, but with a child, I didn’t see how this was possible. “What are we supposed to do with some kid?”
“She’s very special,” replied Adele. “This assignment is a little different than most; I think you may have to stay for a couple days. Talk to her, be her secret special friend.”
I made a face. “What the hell for?”
“Ivy,” she said calmly, sensibly, “just because everyone else we’ve brought came to help us with the money doesn’t mean everyone in the future will serve that same purpose.”
“But what do we need with her?”
“I think she needs us more than we need her, but that’s okay, at least for now. Go and bring her back when she’s ready to come.”
“A kid?” I squeaked again.
“I also feel that she will be very important to us if she spends a significant amount of time with us. We will grow to love her. And you need this experience too.” Adele was obviously trying to convince me that playing fairy godmother to an Earth brat wouldn’t be all that bad.
“So it’s like a punishment for me now?”
“A punishment? Certainly not. An eye-opening experience.”
“Oh, great. Look, my eyes are definitely open enough, okay?” I opened my eyes very wide, exaggerating, and blinked a couple times. “Now can we skip it?”
“Very cute. Now you listen to me,” Adele said, unimpressed, in her serious voice. I stopped making my goofy face and did what she told me. “You will thank me for this later. Going out to find this girl will be the beginning of a lot of experiences for you. You’ve been sheltered for far too long away from the outside world, and you need to get acquainted with it.”
“The outside world? With all those humans running the show? They can keep it.” I was beginning to get scared but I didn’t want to show it.
“Well, if the world is a scarf, we do live on the fringes,” she admitted, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not still part of the same roll of yarn, knitted with the same needles. You need to get some exposure to that world, because sooner or later you’ll need to interact with it, and now’s the best time to start, with Nina to help you. She’s like your doorway to the next stage of your life.”
I looked into the image of the little girl’s face, tuning out Adele’s explanation of where she lived and all the other bull I didn’t care about. I tried to record her words without bothering to comprehend them, because I wanted to think about the little girl. Nina Fairchild, I thought as I studied her. Brown, chocolaty pigtails; brown, sad eyes; freckled cheeks and dimples. She lowered her eyes over and over again in a wrinkle of time, calling to me. I suddenly felt a little excited as the idea of meeting a real human child appealed to me. I wondered if it wouldn’t be a lot more fun than talking to grown-up people . . . she might be different, and more interesting. Grown-ups were so stuffy sometimes, but who knew with a kid? And all these other experiences Adele said I could have if I went . . . it sounded promising, even if it was kind of scary.
“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” I grumbled. Adele smiled knowingly, and I envied her knowledge. Something in her face changed as I looked at her.
“Oh, that’s interesting,” she said, staring at the water. The image of the girl’s face was gone. Apparently Adele was looking at something I couldn’t see. I scowled, feeling left out.
“What’cha lookin’ at anyway?” I asked gruffly.
“It looks like I’m sending Perry to this Ridgefield place too,” she replied.
“How come?” Perry, one of my many roommates, hadn’t been around the house lately because he was out looking for his dream job. When we’d first recruited him he’d been a stage magician, but now he was bored of that and was doing children’s birthday parties, just to keep contributing until he found what he was looking for.
“He’s looking to join a band,” she explained.
“Oh,” I said, laughing. Last I’d heard, Perry wanted to try to get a comedy act again, but he’d said he would settle for being a waiter. He was good at talking and charming people with his voice.
“It looks like there might be a really good group in Ridgefield,” Adele continued. “I’ll have to be sure and tell Perry to check these guys out.” She touched the water and made it ripple as if she were erasing the image from a chalkboard. I wondered if it went away when she did that.
Alix popped up from the pool.
“Ivy, it’s pretty deep on the other side. You gonna wait ’til I’m finished building over there?”
“No, I’m ready now. . . . ” I said. “I’ll be fine.” I didn’t think I could stand waiting for him to finish his job; the barrel tunnel was more to help getting back home than leaving, anyway, and this was one thing I couldn’t speed up by helping, not if it meant needing to stay underwater like Alix did.
“You want me to go first and maybe put you in one of these?” he asked jokingly, holding up one of the little plastic barrels that we sometimes used to transport the stuff we wanted to stay dry.
I shot Alix a dirty look and gave him a sarcastic “ha, ha” as I slid into the water, clothes and all.
“Suit yourself,” said Alix, grabbing his can of beer off the bank and chugging a slurp. I took a deep breath, then slipped into the silvery hole and into another world.
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