The Story of the Whos as of 1 7 15 .pdf
Original filename: The Story of the Whos as of 1-7-15.pdf
Title: The Story of the Whos
Author: Lee Mohnkern
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The gleaming halo of the moon stung the young boy's eyes as he trotted along the path that
traced the valley walls. The moonlight stabbed through the thin night clouds of the autumn night, like
pins through fabric. His wool jacket provided little relief from the frigid cold. He carried a tarnished
silver flashlight, and watched as the faint light bobbed up and down on the trail ahead.
The path sloped upward, to where the moonlight illuminated the dull outline of a small cottage,
the path ending in a sharp cliff guarded by a rickety wooden fence. One of the beams had fallen from the
rest and lay forlorn and half-decayed on the ground, askew from the others.
Looking past the broken fence, down into the valley, beyond the cottage, on the edge of the cliff,
the boy could see the bustling city in the distance. A multitude of multicolored lights, like a field of
sparks, lay nestled on a canvas of black. Beyond the central cluster, the lights grew thinner, into suburbs,
and finally into complete darkness, with barely a light here or there, the few that did shine straining
against the horizon. Tracing his eyes up the opposite wall of the valley, nearly twenty kilometers away,
the boy could see a line of green and red lights. Indiscernible though it was from this distance, he knew
it was the Wall; concrete reinforced with steel, surrounded by land mines. On both sides.
He stared at the door, shaped like an upside-down U and made from fine wood planks cut and
sanded to a perfect curve. His numb knuckles rapped against the wood, the sound quickly stifled by the
frozen air. Footsteps approached from within.
An old man, nearly bald save for a white beard dotted with flecks of gray, stood before the boy,
seeming to tower over him. He wore a black overcoat, the hem of which reached to his knees. His belt
was fastened with a star-shaped buckled, with a cross over it. His kind face creased with a frown when
he saw his visitor.
“Shouldn't you be at home, asleep in bed?” he said sternly.
“I wanted to know the answer to the question you asked me today, Professor Harling,” the boy
said timidly,“You asked why I think our people are so good. And I didn't know. I mean like how we
almost never hurt each other, or steal from each other, or anything.”
“Ah,” said the man, gazing up at the stars, “When you get older you will learn that the world is
“But I read about the old people. They lied and cheated and stealed and hit each other and stuff,”
the boy rambled, “But that doesn't happen here. You asked me why. I just want the answer,” he said, a
hint of longing in his voice.
The man sighed, then opened his mouth to speak. But he paused, looking at the stars.
“Nothing is perfect, or even close. Even us. Even we are not perfect.”
“I know,” said the boy, “Tommy pushed me outside the school today.”
The old man smiled, and laughed, a soft chuckle he reserved for his young students, “That
Tommy, that Tommy,” he said, shaking his head, but his smile remained. He began to stand up, to escort
the boy back outside. But he would not go.
“What do you mean, 'not even close'?” he pressed.
The man sighed, closing his eyes for a few seconds, before opening them again.
“In a way, we are just as 'bad' as those people you read about from ancient times,” the man said,
his smile gone now, “But our bad parts are… separated, in a way,”
“Separated?” the boy started, “What do you mean–”
“Peter,” came a stern voice from behind. A serious looking man in a long black coat and an
almost ludicrous top hat stood outside, holding an electric lantern. The boy barely twitched at the
surprise appearance. Somehow, he had known that his father was behind him, a split second before he'd
“Peter, come home with me, right now,” his father said, extending a hand, “And there will be no
more sneaking out at night, or you won't go to play with your friends till the first snow.”
That couldn't be too terrible a punishment, Peter thought. Tonight would probably be another
frost, a prelude to the first snowfall of the season. Nevertheless, he took his father's gloved hand,
wrapping his fingers tightly around the warm felt. Peter's father glared at the professor, who returned
nothing more than a knowing smile, as if Peter's father were a student about to make a mistake he would
later learn from. To Peter, the old man gave a wink out of his left eye.
“Come on,” Peter's father said, with a last contemptuous look back at the old man, before
dragging him back along the path.
That was Peter's last visit with his teacher. Three days later, old Professor Harling died in his
sleep. Peter's parents went with him to the funeral, though his father had a strained look on his face
throughout the entire ceremony.
When the local officials examined his will, it was found that he had left something to Peter,
which was odd, as Peter had been neither one of Professor Harling's favored pupils, nor related to him in
any way. Yet he had been left two items nonetheless.
One was the star-shaped belt buckle he'd always worn, something Peter had seen every day and
had admired. The other was something new; a slender knife, the blade about seven inches long and the
handle about four. The handle and the blade were both pure silver. However, Peter had only a few
seconds to stare wonderingly at the knife before his father snatched it up, placing it on the mantle above
the fireplace. His sister, Rebecca, a few years older, watched from the door to her room, her long,
golden-brown hair framing her curious eyes.
“He's too young to have a knife,” he said to Peter's mother, answering her questioning look.
“You let him have one for carving wood,” said Peter's mother.
“I don't care; this is different,” said Peter's father.
“This is only because its Harling, isn't it?” Peter's mother said. Peter's father walked out of the
room without a word. Peter's mother followed him, repeating, “Isn't it?” more insistently. Both of them
walked into their room, closing the door firmly behind them so forcefully that the paintings on their
green walls shook. Peter sat on the couch, and instead examined the buckle he had so unexpectedly
It was about two inches wide and had the reddish shine of bronze. The metal was shaped into a
star with two thick lines crossing through it. One had a circle at either end, the other had a triangle at
either end. Peter stared at it, remembering the professor's words, trying to make sense of them. He stood
up, and went to the small drawer that held his mother's string, Rebecca watching him as he did.
He pulled a two-foot length of the brown, crusty twine free of the bundle, and cut it on the sharp
edge of the metal on the drawer handle. He threaded the twine through an opening in the buckle, and
tied the ends of the string, then hung the makeshift medallion around his neck. “There,” Peter said,
“Now I can always remember him.”
As he sat, a tear ran down his cheek, only partly in mourning.
Thirteen years later, Peter Green stood at the front of an air sloop, the chill wind numbing his
cheeks, as the ship soared hundreds of feet above the ground. It wove between the massive trees that lay
far beyond the Valley, the roar of the engines behind him lost to the wind. The medallion still hung
around his neck.
The air sloop, a fifty-foot long aircraft powered only by two strong engines attached at the back,
relied on its wide, curved body for lift, and faintly resembled a sailing ship in flight, hence its name.
The trees they flew between reached far higher than any Peter had ever seen. According to the
book he had read, they were quite common beyond the valley that Peter's people inhabited, but neither
he nor anyone who hadn't been in the Expeditionary Battalion before had ever seen any of this size.
Large enough to be used as cities, if one were to burrow into the wood.
“Bear right!” Peter turned and shouted in a loud voice that defied his normally quiet nature. He
had dreamed of joining since age thirteen; but the urge to roam had been with him much longer.
His thoughts distracted him; Peter started when the ship turned again, flying tangent to the thick
trunk of the titanic tree, following the curve around to the other side before breaking away. The gray
bark whizzed by at dizzying speeds, providing a dazzling visual effect, like a monochromatic rain.
Now the ship began to descend, gliding smoothly toward a group of hills that the massive trees
surrounding them dwarfed easily in comparison. A stream ran down the rocky slope, into a wide lake at
the bottom, whose surface was punctured by the roots of one of the huge trees. Peter had always
wondered what had allowed a tree to grow so far beyond normal natural limits, let alone a whole forest
Peter's friend Thale, a senior member who had taken Peter under his wing since he'd joined, had
jokingly said that they had all been exposed to too much radiation. Peter had seriously considered this,
until he realized that there was no way this could be true; the trees had surely been grown before
radiation had been invented – no, probably before his people had even existed.
His eighteenth birthday had been just a few months ago, the threshold of being allowed to
actually leave the valley, not just help analyze artifacts the others brought back. His first “real” mission
had been a few days later; his own personal victory over the wall that had confined him to live the first
seventeen years of his life in an equal number of square kilometers. He had only seen it up close once,
on a class trip. He had gotten nearly close enough to touch it, until he'd been stopped.
“The fence is electrified,” his teacher had told him grimly, “One touch and we'll be prying you
off so we can bury what's left.”
That teacher had been fired a few days later for what he said; it had frightened the students, and
apparently it was supposed to be a secret. But his lesson stuck in Peter's mind. There was no way in to
the valley from the outside; that was good, it kept out the terrible creatures said to live outside. But this
wall also prevented anyone from leaving. What kind of wall, Peter had wondered, was meant not only to
protect, but also to confine? Prisons were unknown in the valley; rehabilitation or execution were the
only punishments. Crime was rare, and thus much more terrible when it did happen.
“Peter!” a sharp voice interrupted his thoughts. It was deadened by the wind, but Peter could still
hear the edge it carried. He took his time turning to look; he already knew who it was. Galwin was a
large, loud member of the Expeditionary Battalion who irritated anyone he didn't find “worthy” of his
acceptance. Peter knew the type well; they were best ignored when possible.
“If you want to daydream, that's fine, but do it somewhere else.”
Peter did not answer, just turned back, looking out as the tree trunks rushed by.
“Not dreaming about Emily, are you?” Galwin continued with a grin, his voice faint as most of it
was torn away by the wind.
Just ignore him, Peter told himself. Galwin was easily the most obnoxious living being in the
world. Except perhaps for mosquitoes. Most likely the giant ones he'd been told lived beyond the wall,
only kept out by the invisible laser fence above the city. Peter grinned as he imagined Galwin as a
mosquito fleeing a flyswatter, before realizing what a stupid image that was.
Perhaps what irritated him most was that Galwin treated the Expeditionary Battalion like a joke
when it was not. Peter knew Galwin thought he was an idiot for taking it seriously, as did many others.
But while it wasn't really a battalion, it did explore. It went beyond the Wall. Why didn't they understand
how important that was?
The ship lurched downward suddenly, interrupting Peter's thoughts once again. It was aimed
directly at a small grouping of rocks near the top of the hill. In all, the descent took barely ten seconds,
then the rocks were suddenly real, rather than simply a diorama viewed from the sky.
Peter covered his ears as two reverse thrust engines, to slow and steer the craft, fired up, slowing
the ship as it coasted over the apex of the hill. They wailed as they rent the air, and Peter's knees nearly
buckled under the deceleration. The ship lurched forward slightly, before settling on the ground, held up
by a series of meter-long metal poles, like insect legs. Peter looked down, which wasn't very far
anymore, at the rocky surface. A few clusters of scraggly trees grew here and there, but they were bare
and dead. A few small pines sprouted in a circle at the top of the hill, dwarfed by their titanic cousins in
the distant background.
“Odd pattern,” Peter said to himself curiously. Trees didn't normally grow in such perfect circles.
The fading echoes of the engines left behind an eerie silence interrupted by the occasional twitter
of a bird. The mouth of the cave looked arranged: two huge parallelogram-shaped rocks forming an
upside-down V. Beyond that, sheer blackness.
Peter vaulted over the rail of the ship, the buzz of tinnitus still fresh in his ears. He landed,
loosening his knees so that he rolled among the pine needles, perfectly and painlessly, before springing
back to his feet.
A ramp let down from the side of the ship, a few feet down, and the other crewmen exited the
sloop in single-file, led by the ship's captain, Nelc. He had twenty years, several inches, and about fifty
pounds on Peter.
“That's your fifth violation of landing protocol this month, Peter,” he chided, “If you keep this
up, you can be dismissed, you know.”
“Yes, sir,” Peter said, attempting to look reproachful.
“Right,” said Nelc, then turned to the other crew, “Galwin, get the lanterns from the storage
room. Bring five.”
“What should I do, sir?” Peter asked, trying to inject some helpfulness into his voice. He hated
“landing protocol” and “standard procedure”; he knew how to keep himself safe, and he didn't need any
rules telling him otherwise. But it helped to stay on the captain's good side; getting kicked out of the
Expeditionary Battalion would mean returning to Nalio to work, and would look bad besides.
“Peter, you and Galwin will be carrying lanterns. Try not to do anything particularly foolish with
them.” Nelc's lips tightened in what Peter knew to be the closest he came to a grin.
As they approached the cave, Peter realized that the stones marking the entrance were larger than
he'd thought; they were easily fifteen meters long, and five thick. He'd never seen a whole piece of stone
longer than maybe three meters. By the time they had reached the cave's entrance, the stones seemed
“What's this?” said a girl whose name Peter did not know, pointing to what appeared to be
markings on the inside of the stones. Nelc approached her, bending to look at what appeared to Peter to
be a series of symbols. He squinted at them, then reached into his pocket and extracted a small pair of
thin-rimmed glasses. As he slipped them over his eyes, he knelt next to the stones, leaning in close.
Galwin suddenly started forward, motioning as if to push Nelc; but withdrew at the last second, falling
back among the group to laugh with his friends. Peter glared at him.
“Galwin.” Nelc's voice was demanding, and Galwin straightened instantly. Peter smirked,
thinking he'd finally gotten his comeuppance.
“Photograph these markings for study back in Nalio. I want closeups of each set, and then a
couple shots from further back.”
“The rest of you, with me.”
They followed Nelc as he straightened up, leaving Galwin and his friends behind. The air cooled
rapidly as they moved down the slope, deeper into the cave. Peter could see the faint outlines of what
had to be stalagmites in the darkness.
“Flashlights,” said Nelc. Around him, a dozen or so lights clicked on at once, illuminating the
cave with little spots of light. The walls were covered in slashes; after a few seconds of looking at them
Peter realized they were some form of writing.
“Someone go tell Galwin he's got a lot more work to do,” said Nelc bemusedly. There was a bit
of light laughter, but as Peter glanced around, he saw looks of uncertainty on many of the faces. He
understood their feelings but did not share them. Always, he had felt that there had to be something
beyond the Wall, besides monstrous creatures and wasteland. Here was some sort of solid proof, at last!
There was someone else. All at once, the months with the Expeditionary Battalion felt fulfilled.
The cavern split off in several directions. Nelc looked around for a moment, before turning to
face them again.
“Thale, Jeyin, Abby,” Nelc commanded, “Pick four others and go down one of these tunnels. Be
careful, stay together, and do not disturb anything. I'll take any leftovers and go down the fourth tunnel.
Report back in fifteen minutes. If you're not back, we'll assume you're in some sort of trouble and go
look for you; don't make me have to do that unnecessarily. This has been a good day so far.”
There was some light chuckling as the group began to divide up; Thale walked over to Peter.
“Come with me?” he offered.
“Sure,” said Peter right away. He and Thale had been friends almost since Peter had joined, but
recently he had ignored Peter more and more in favor of the other senior members of the Expeditionary
Battalion. Peter was glad their friendship had not been entirely forgotten.
“Good man,” said Thale with a grin, “Be back.” He set off back into the crowd to find a few
other companions. Peter relaxed a bit, breathing in the damp, salty air. Off to the side he watched Abby
gathering her own group. She was barely two years older than Peter, yet she was already one of Nelc's
lieutenants, and was respected by most of the Expeditionary Battalion officials. Another aspect of the
Battalion that had attracted Peter was the ease of advancement, and he had ambitions. Admittedly one
could only do so much with a high rank in an all-but-unarmed paramilitary unit, but it served Peter's
purposes better than any real military rank. He would be getting weapons training in another couple of
months, anyway. It was required of all citizens, a requirement to graduate from school, to learn how to
use guns that the Wall ensured they would never need. Peter savored the irony, as he always made sure
to each time he thought of it.
From a distance, he realized Abby was quite attractive. Closer up, there was an off-putting
sternness to her face. But from back here, her slender figure barely illuminated by the darting flashlight
beams and the traces of sunlight that still permeated the cave, Peter realized she was pleasant to look at.
Some faint sense of guilt overcame him, but he shook it away. He respected her as well. There was
nothing wrong with a little objectification.
Thale's return startled Peter; he had two others in tow. Peter instantly snapped his head back to
Thale, but he seemed not to notice.
“We'll take the second on the left. Looks most interesting. The writing seems to be all over the
walls, but that one's the exception. We'll check it out.”
The others nodded, and followed Thale as he led them over to the cave. The other groups had
already left, except for Abby's, who was now integrating Galwin and his friends into her group. Peter
smirked a little; if they tried any of their errant mischief around her, she would give them quite a
surprise. Peter had once incorrectly tied a mooring knot for one of the air sloops; as a result it had tilted
suddenly and precipitously. Abby had been in charge that day; Nelc had had more important things to
do. The look she had given him made Peter wonder if he should be expecting a termination notice.
As the writings trailed off, shelves, carved into the cave wall, replaced them. A few pieces of
broken pottery lay on them; in one place was a lopsided pot, tilted at a strange angle. Thale went in first,
setting down a cloth bag as he did, drawing out a magnifying glass, and kneeling on the floor. A few
brown objects were strewn amongst the bits of clay; Peter picked one up between his fingers, only to
discover that it was iron, rusted almost beyond composition. Even in this dry cave, enough moisture had
gotten in to slowly dissolve the metal. He made to set it back down, but it crumbled to dust between his
fingers, and the two halves dropped to the floor.
“Peter!” warned Thale, “We weren't supposed to touch anything! Get a sample bag or something,
don't put your fingers all over stuff.”
A wash of guilt ran over Peter, but he reached into the bag Thale had set on the floor, and
withdrew a pair of tongs and a plastic bag, picked up a few pieces, sealed the bag, then hurried after
Thale and the others, who were already moving on.
The hallway ended in a strange chamber; though perhaps there were more of these, they did not
know what the other groups had found. The chamber seemed to be bathed in blue light, despite no
apparent source. Mushrooms covered the floor, the long tendrils of their thick roots – or mycelium, as
Peter was fairly certain they were called – reaching around the edges of the room. Something like an
altar, a flat piece of stone supported by two smaller ones, dominated the center of the room. On the
ground in front of it were various pieces of metal; though, unlike the other artifacts Peter had found, they
were not iron, as there was no rust. The pieces seemed to be bent wires of some sort, looking almost like
a messy clump of twine. Peter ignored them, but Thale immediately reached for them with a pair of
tongs, and bagged them.
“I think this was some sort of shrine or temple,” Peter observed, though he was pretty sure that
this was evident to everyone else anyway.
“Right,” said Thale, who seemed transfixed by the remaining pieces of wire on the ground.
There was a quiet moment as one of the others who had accompanied them, someone Peter was
fairly sure was called Derrick, snapped a series of photographs of the room and its contents, the flashing
lights of the camera reflecting off the walls giving the chamber an eerie, otherworldly quality. Then they
were finished, and Thale led them back to the main chamber.
There they found the group; little else of interest had been found. Nelc collected sample bags
from them; Peter saw a few engraved stones and primitive wooden tools, distorted behind the wrinkled
plastic. Nelc seemed more disappointed with each mundane item that was given to him, but Peter was
excited; finally, it was proof that someone had lived outside the valley, a long time ago, somewhere that
was not “officially sanctioned” or had to be reviewed first.
If this was the past, then it could be the future.
The sun was beginning to sink into its lazy afternoon color, that of an old tallow candle. Clouds
dulled its light, cooling the air; Peter felt none of the sun's warmth on the back of his neck as the air
sloop whisked through the air on the return journey to the valley. This was the fifth expedition he had
gone on since he had joined at the start of summer; now, as traces of color crept into the leaves, the
months of learning and searching seemed absolved at last. What they had found was nothing special;
traces of civilization had been found outside the valley before. But to Peter, it was only now that he was
sure that that “fact” had not just been another lie.
Resignation stole the edge from his happiness as he remembered he had to go to school the next
day. Expeditionary Battalion members were expected to keep their marks high, and Peter had never
failed to meet this requirement. Even so, school was not something he enjoyed as a whole, though there
were certain redeeming aspects...
The valley came into view as the air sloop rushed over the trees. Peter had little to do now that
they had left the large forest; there were no obstacles tall enough for the air sloop to have to worry about.
Even from five hundred feet up, the Wall looked imposing. Peter looked disdainfully at it. He could defy
it for a few hours, even a day, but like a knot around his ankle, it always ended up dragging him back.
Landing was always one of the least pleasant parts of flying; as the Expeditionary Battalion ships
were old, they did not have any shock absorption on their landing struts. Peter felt his entire midriff jolt
as they landed. His knees buckled, and he fell forward, catching himself on his hands. He pushed
himself back up, scowling at Galwin's gleeful grin as he watched Peter's mistake.
Boots clicking metallically down the exit ramp, he looked around. They had landed at one of the
smaller airports in Nalio, the largest city in the valley. Peter's father worked here, and usually picked
Peter up from the airport on his way home on days when the Expeditionary Battalion was flying
somewhere. But as Peter followed the others to the parking lot outside the landing areas, he realized his
father wasn't there; he did not see his car anywhere.
At once he remembered; Emily was supposed to pick him up today. She had recently received
her license, and as a result had driven as much as possible. His father had appreciated the news that
Peter would not need a ride home; he was able to drive but his family only owned one car, and that was
needed for Peter's father to go to work. His father had seemed eager to forgo giving Peter a ride today;
he disapproved of the Expeditionary Battalion, though he would never admit it outright. Peter didn't
know why; there was much about his father's opinions that he didn't understand.
Emily leaned against a sleek, black car whose form was at once both sharply angled and
smoothly contoured; far more stylish than the old box Peter's father drove. Perhaps he felt a slight blow
to his masculinity, having her drive him around from time-to-time, but it was better than walking. And
worth it for the time he got to spend with her.
He smiled at her as he approached.
“I almost forgot,” he admitted sheepishly.
“Like you would forget a relief from driving home with your father,” she said, rolling her eyes
with a grin. She skipped lightly around the front of the car, pulling the door open. Peter pulled open the
other door, and allowed himself to sink back against the soft seat. Next to him, Emily swung her hips
into her own seat, and gazed intently at the ignition, fiddling with the key. Peter watched her set her legs
against the seat, foot against the pedal, as she started the car. This was much preferable to driving home
in premeditated uncomfortable silence with his father.
After she had backed out of the parking spot, she relaxed a little, and began to talk.
“Today was the first trip in a while, wasn't it?”
“What did you find?”
“A cave full of rocks,” said Peter. Emily grinned.
“Sounds like a good day.”
“That and some old artifacts that suggest people lived there once.”
“You don't like this stuff?”
Emily's grin faded as she made a turn, onto a long winding road that led out of Nalio and toward
the slope-side villages where they lived.
“It just seems … I don't know, pointless to me. No offense,” she added quickly, though Peter's
expression had not changed, “Maybe I just don't get it. What it means to you and everyone else.”
“It means we didn't always live here,” said Peter, a hint of firm belief stirring in his tone, “That
we had a past, and, maybe, a future.”
“We have a future here,” said Emily coolly, focusing on the road.
Maybe you do, Peter thought, but decided to let the subject rest, and agreed.
“What about you?” he asked her after a moment of silence.
Emily sighed, “Things were pretty normal. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. I spent most
of the morning having to remake copies one of the other interns lost, then when I brought them back in I
was told they'd been found again, so...”
Peter tried to focus on Emily's words, but they bored him. Guilt hovered over his thoughts at his
uncaring treatment of her story, but not enough to penetrate the dull layer of indifference that suddenly
hovered over him. Emily thought his work pointless. And she was certainly not the only one. Perhaps
controversy wasn't the right word for what surrounded the Expeditionary Battalion's operations, but
there was always a suspicious eye cast toward it, and speculation over whether it's returns were worthy
of the investments put into it. Fortunately (at least to Peter), this speculation never got loud enough to
bring the survival of the program into any serious questioning, but Peter had heard of some extraneous
soil surveying programs having their funding cut by the council in Nalio, and was worried that their
sights would turn on the Expeditionary Battalion next. Did everyone think the way Emily did? Did
everyone see it as a meaningless waste of money, all for a few broken bowls and wide-area maps?
By the time he came back to his surroundings, Emily had all but finished her story. Peter
desperately tried to gather the general idea from her last few words, but to no avail.
“ … I just don't think that it's fair. I'll be able to get the degree whenever I want, taking all the
classes is just a formality at this point.”
“Mmm,” Peter grunted in agreement. Emily turned to him.
“I wish my parents respected you more. At least you listen to reason.”
A small creature ran across the road; Emily swerved suddenly to avoid it. There were no other
vehicles on this serene stretch of the winding route, and her drastic maneuvers barely roused Peter from
his post-expedition torpor.
Emily glanced at him as she drove on, misinterpreting his tired expression as an offended one.
“You know what I mean. It's just with that whole Expeditionary Battalion thing, and your dad's a
businessman, and everyone expects you to take after him, you know? Follow him in his footsteps. But
now you look like the wayward son going down the wrong path.”
“Am I?” Peter asked, turning his head. Emily's hair always curled neatly behind her ears, as
straight as the rest of it was, and those few strands that did broke free from the rest, tickling at the front
of her delicate neck. He suddenly realized he had missed her answer.
“What?” he asked.
“No, Peter. I said no. Really I mean it.” She looked almost worried now.
“You get to do what you want with life. I won't think any different of you, pretty much no matter
what you choose to do. No one else should, either.”
“But they do.”
“Of course they do. They're people. They judge.”
“Well it's unfair,” Peter said, feeling pathetically childish as he did.
He boredly rolled his head back to stare out the window. The late afternoon sky seemed strangely
ominous now, as the sun ducked behind a group of clouds for a break from shining most of the day. The
sky hovered between its normal cerulean shade, and the flat gray of an exhausted afternoon. The idyllic
landscape before them seemed numbed and quiet; the warm purr of the engine the only comfort to them.
“At least tomorrow is a day off,” Emily pointed out, hoping to lighten the mood.
“What do you want to do?” Peter asked at once, although the words still slipped out in a dull tone
of voice. Emily glanced at him.
“I was going somewhere with Mary and one of her friends. Probably to the city for a while.”
“One of her friends?”
“I don't remember her name, I've only met her like twice.”
“So a girls' day out. I take it I'm not invited.”
“I didn't say that,” Emily said, a faint grin on her face, “But I figured you weren't interested.”
“Yeah, count me out. Maybe next weekend.”
There was a pause as a gust of wind swept leaves from the trees above; they had begun to drive
through the forest that carpeted the sides of the valley, nestling the small, diffuse villages amongst the
trees. A couple of errant leaves glanced off the windshield, fluttering in the rear view mirror before
disappearing from sight.
“You really can come if you want. You know Mary's boyfriend, right? Thomas? Maybe you both
A particularly sepulchral cloud, like a gray lump that had somehow hoisted itself aloft, dragged
itself across the sky in front of them. Peter's eyes traced its smooth, curvaceous edges, at outline like that
of a scrunched up loop of string.
“I'll think about it,” he said.
“We have like, five minutes until you get home. You might want to think quick.”
“Sure, I'll come,” Peter said, leaning forward and lowering his eyes to look out the front window
at the road head; as he watched it rush toward him, he felt as though his brain was floating freely inside
his head, lubricated by some jelly-like substance. His skull was clenched with a sudden headache.
“Well, I'll come get you tomorrow morning then.”
They said nothing more until they reached Peter's house. The sun was slowly trudging toward the
rim of the valley, now shining buttery orange through the clouds, bathing the grass and trees in sharp
sepia light. Peter opened the door with a muffled click.
“Bye Peter,” said Emily's sweet voice from behind him.
“Bye, Emily,” he replied, climbing from the car and closing the door, a thick pane of glass now
dulling his vision of her face. The engine's warm purr suddenly swelled, and it lurched forward,
crackling along the gravelly road, further up the hill to Emily's home. Peter waved to her rather lamely,
before starting up the driveway to his house.
As he watched his shadow swiveling in front of him, stretched out to tall, slender proportions by
the angle of the sun, he suddenly felt like an idiot. Mary bringing a boyfriend, Emily bringing him, that
was supposed to be some sort of hint, wasn't it? Or was it? He hated the subtlety of these things. He
hated the subtlety of most things. He knew it was a weakness, knew the value of not blatantly saying or
doing. But when it came to actually dealing with it, it tested his patience.
No matter what it meant, a day with Emily was a victory. He was willing to give, more than he
would admit to, for that alone. He reached the door of the small cottage he shared with his parents. The
frigid doorknob met Peter's hand with its familiar icy greeting, but he did not care. A day with Emily.
He pushed open the door with a familiar creak. His mother was seated behind the kitchen table,
her eyes intent on whatever she was reading. She did not notice Peter until he closed the door.
He walked past her, into the living room, where his father sat, similarly reading. Peter unhooked
his belt, and hung it from the gnarly, wooden coat-hook stand that stood in the corner of the room. His
father raised his gaze above his newspaper to look at it. His eyes seemed to narrow.
“What?” Peter said at once, almost accusingly. Every day for years, any sight of Peter's belt,
holding the two gifts his old professor had given him, had been glared at by his father. Peter remembered
his father had disliked Professor Harling, to put it mildly, but his habit wore on him.
“Just looking,” his father said, eyes retreating behind his newspaper again.
“No you weren't,” Peter said firmly. Somehow, today's events seemed to have vindicated the old
man, and Peter felt a strange bravado coming over him to defend his honor.
“Don't take that tone with me,” his father replied, immediately lowering his newspaper.
“Stop glaring at my belt.”
“I will 'glare' at what I want to. This is my house. If you want me to continue paying for you to
live here so that you can stay in that Expeditionary Battalion, you had better not give me any mouth.”
Give me a few more months in it, and I won't need you, Peter seethed inside. Higher-ranking
members of the Expeditionary Battalion were paid. Not handsomely, but Peter knew Nelc and his wife
had a moderately sized home; he had been invited there with Thale and a couple other members once for
“Yes, Father,” Peter said softly. He sloped out of the room, then up the stairs, and down the short
hallway to his room.