Chapter 72

“Lies”

Kyo sat down on the old, creaky chair, put the worn leather bag on his lap, and started sorting through the first aid supplies inside. It was dark inside the tiny dwelling, with only the light of a burning candle to chase the shadows away. Two chairs, old and decrepit, and three stools, crudely fashioned out of whole chunks of tree trunks, were arranged around the tree stump that served as table. A flat plank on one side acted as a kitchen counter, with a stack of jars and tin boxes on the side near to the fire pit. There were herbs, dried fruit, seeds, nuts… Everything that was worth gathering in that forest was represented in that jar collection.

The entire living space had essentially been constructed around the stump; a few well-laid beams covered with a thick layer of wood, sticks, and branches, and covered completely with humus and moss. From the outside, it blended magnificently with the rest of the forest that surrounded them.

There was only one real comfort inside, and that was the fire pit. He didn’t like the idea of having a fire, even though its warmth was very welcome, but it was constructed in the fashion of the Dakota tribe – or so he had been told – which made for a hot burning fire with little and easily dissipated smoke. The chimney was crowned with loose branches, and went directly into the top of an evergreen tree. He had to admit it was hard enough to see any smoke at all even when standing right next to it, but he still didn’t like it.

I’m probably too paranoid, but…

A soft female voice interrupted his thoughts. “He’s finally asleep.”

He looked up at the woman coming out of the adjacent room. She had dark hair salted with white strands here and there, long and collected into a bun on the back of her head. She had a pretty face, somewhat bony with lines starting to make their way into her features after years of hard outdoors living, thin lips drawn into a soft smile, and a slightly flattened and round-tipped nose.

“He’ll be fine,” Kyo said with a smile. “It was a pretty clean fracture. It would be better with a cast, but…”

“We have to make do with what we have. Would you like some tea?”

“Sure.”

The woman filled a small, old pot with water, using a ladle to pull it from the wooden barrel in the corner, and placed it on the fire pit. She looked at Kyo, and smiled again. “You still don’t like it, do you?”

“It’s not the fire that worries me.”

“I know.” She seated herself next to him, and took a deep breath in. She exhaled slowly before speaking again. “It’s hard to feel safe these days.”

Kyo nodded, but didn’t say anything.

“So, is Isamu enjoying the book?” she asked in a lighter tone.

“Ah, yes. Yes she is,” Kyo replied, matching her tone and forcing a smile.

Smile and pretend everything is normal.

“But?” she asked, arching her eyebrows in a knowing gesture.

“But… Well, but I wish she was out playing with the other children.” He pointed at the adjacent room with his thumb. “Even if she risks breaking an arm or two.”

“Well, that’s what her dad is for, fixing her up if she breaks something.”

“Heh, maybe.” Kyo shook his head and his smile wavered. “It’s just… I just wish she was a bit more sociable.”

“Give her time, she will.”

“I hope so.” He shook his head again. “I don’t know. I don’t think I’m doing a very good job with her. I taught her how to survive, and how to scavenge, but when it comes to teaching her how to live with others… I don’t think I’m the right person for that.”

“You’re her father, of course you’re the right person! Who else do you think should teach her?”

Who indeed, Kyo thought.

He didn’t answer, and for a while the room was quiet. The silence was finally interrupted by the bubbling of the pot when the water broke into a boil.

“Mei?” Kyo said.

“Yes?”

“The water’s boiling.”

“Wha- oh dear,” she replied, chuckling softly. “I had forgotten.”

She got up to prepare the drinks, and a minute later she sat down with two steaming cups, light aluminium ones that had seen better days.

“Here you go,” Mei said, handing Kyo one of them. “Careful, it’s very hot.”

“Thanks.”

Kyo took the cup and smelled it. The pungent aroma of mint and herbs was very welcome, and he enjoyed it immensely. He had trouble remembering what the smell of real tea was like, but he couldn’t imagine it being better than the herbal infusion Mei prepared for him.

“You know,” Mei said, seating herself next to Kyo and putting her cup on the table, “if you want Isamu to be more sociable, maybe you should lead her by example.”

She took her cup and sipped, smiling softly at Kyo. He made a half-smirk back, and sipped his own cup without answering. It wasn’t a lack of interest or attraction, it was something more fundamental than that. He saw such human interactions as an anchor.

Because when this place gets attacked, I’m taking Isamu and leaving, that’s why.

He had stopped considering long ago whether it was a selfish thought or not. He sometimes thought he was merely using people for the sake of Isamu, so that she wouldn’t have to grow up the way he had lived before finding her seven years ago.

After his next sip, he felt Mei putting her hand on his arm. He didn’t know how long he had been lost in thought.

“We can all rely on each other here, isn’t that better?” she said.

Kyo nodded, but didn’t answer. He never answered. Not when it came to personal talk. As such, they spent just a few minutes making small talk, and he left after finishing his tea. Not in a hurry, not making one step faster than the previous, he simply sidestepped any compromising conversation and moved on.

Outside, the other children were playing, some game that involved tossing rocks into a marked area and chasing each other around. The games area was less sheltered than the dwellings, but was constructed in the same fashion: a semi-open area under a cover of moss, grass, and tree branches. It appeared to be a very animated game, despite the very quiet way in which it was played. He saw many of the children with their hands on their mouths, trying to quiet down their laughter while two girls were in the process of chasing after each other around the central area.

I’d like to see Isamu laugh like that for once…

He walked past the kids and waved at them, getting a few waves back. He heard some whispers about him, and his daughter, and how weird they both were, but didn’t give them any attention.

There’s nothing weird about her. It’s just me.

It didn’t take long to arrive to his own dwelling. A much newer construction than the rest, made in the outskirts of the settlement. All of them were very spread out, but his own was even further away than the norm. It was a very good and very sheltered spot, so his choice had not raised many questions, but it was not the main reason.

He looked back at the other houses and nodded. We can get away easily from here.

Short black hair, sharp features and narrow eyes, Isamu was sitting by the entrance with a dog-eared book on her lap and reading avidly. The Red Rover, the cover read. He remembered the discussion he had about it with Mei, she had claimed Isamu was a bit too young for the book, but Kyo hadn’t seen the point. She had seen much worse than what was portrayed in the book.

“How is the book going?”

“It’s great, I love it,” Isamu replied, not looking up from the pages. “It’s like mom and you!”

“Huh? How come?”

“The pirate kidnaps this boy, and the girls, just like you did with mom!”

“Haha! It wasn’t so dramatic with us. She wanted to come too,” Kyo replied, putting a hand on Isamu’s head and mussing her hair slightly. There was no reaction, which was unusual, moreso as she was still stuck in the book. “What’s wrong?”

“No… nothing! I didn’t… I’m…”

Kyo sat back on his haunches and looked at the girl square in the eye. After some hesitation, Isamu looked up, and couldn’t hide the distress she felt.

“What happened baby girl?”

“I… I broke the knife. I was careful! I swear! I didn’t want to break it! I-”

“Shhh,” Kyo said, putting his hand on Isamu’s head. “It’s okay, it happens. Did you cut yourself when it broke?”

Isamu shook her head, biting her lower lip. Kyo gave the girl a hug, and patted her head. “It’s a shame, but it was an old knife. The important thing is that you’re not hurt, okay?”

Isamu nodded, but didn’t say anything. She just walked inside with Kyo. Their house was almost completely empty, there were two beds on one side, each a wood frame holding a pile of dried leaves and their sleeping bags. There was a slab of wood in the center of the room, with two blocks of wood to serve as stools, and a fire pit on the opposite side of the beds. It was cold inside, and the fire pit looked like it hadn’t been used in a while. Next to the entrance were their backpacks, and they looked fully packed and ready to be taken.

They had never settled down in that place. It all looked like a temporary hideout.

There was a block of half-carved wood on the table, made into a simple doll-like figure and surrounded by wood chips. Next to it, a broken knife blade and its handle. It was a small pocket knife, far from the best tool for wood carving, but one Isamu cherished tremendously. That much would have been obvious to anyone looking at her face at that moment.

“This is pretty good,” Kyo said, picking up the unfinished carving.

“I can’t finish it now,” Isamu said.

“It’s fine, we’ll find you another knife sometime.”

Isamu sat down at the table and took a small wooden figurine out of her pocket. It was a very detailed carving, beautifully made and finished in raw wood without varnish, just small enough to fit in one of Isamu’s hands. Kyo looked at it and managed to stop a gesture of annoyance from showing on his face. He remembered how he had told Isamu that her mom had made it.

It wasn’t true, he had just found it years before finding Isamu herself, while scavenging in an abandoned town. He didn’t much care for things he could make no use for, specially as he liked to travel light, but for some reason he had decided to keep it. It was beautifully made, and quite light. Whatever the reason, it was Isamu’s now.

He left Isamu to brood a little, took his backpack to the table, and started to root through it.

“Hm, we’ve got enough food for a while,” he muttered, taking up his old habit of talking to himself. “Maybe I should start a store for winter…”

“Are we going to stay here?” Isamu said.

“Eh? Oh! Maybe, at least for a while. It’s not a bad spot, do you like it here?”

“You said I shouldn’t get comfortable…”

“Maybe a little would be okay. Would you like to stay here? You could play with the other kids.”

Isamu shrugged, a much too mature gesture for someone so young. It served to finish their conversation, something both of them seemed equally happy to do. Isamu took her book and walked out to read, and Kyo took his radio out of the backpack – and old crank-powered emergency radio/flashlight. He walked out too, sat down on the floor next to Isamu, and started taking it apart with his old Leatherman.

They could both be in silence for hours, days even, working together like that. Silence was good.

It wasn’t long before the silence was broken. An unusual hubhub of approaching voices, much too loud for it to be nothing out of the ordinary. Isamu looked at Kyo, who was listening intently, and jumped to her feet when he did the same.

“Dad?”

“That’s not aliens,” he said. “Pack up anyway, I’ll go find out.”

“Dad…”

“I’ll be careful, don’t worry” Kyo replied. He looked at Isamu, smiled, and gave her the radio. “Go ahead. I’ll be back soon.”

He left Isamu behind and made his way slowly towards the center of the settlement. The voices were getting louder, and more numerous. Somehow everyone was gathering in the middle clear area. He kept his distance, hiding away until he could assess the situation.

Most of the people from the settlement were there. There were others too, heavily armed men in military fatigues. But there wasn’t any panic. He saw smiling faces, and very loud banter.

Something doesn’t add up.

His first instinct was to turn away and never come back. That had always been the way he stayed alive, and doubly so since he started taking care of Isamu.

His second thought was Isamu herself. She was a lot like him, of that there was no doubt. His fault, most likely. And that wasn’t the life for a child. Even if it was the only possible life in that crazy world.

He wanted for her to stay in that settlement with the others.

Soon he saw several people bringing bundles out. Very lively discussions. They looked like they were ready to leave.

What the heck’s going on…

Kyo made his way down the trees and came into the clearing, keeping an eye on the armed men. He looked for Mei, but she was nowhere to be seen. He hastened his way and came into her home. She was inside, hastily packing a bag.

“Mei?” he called.

“Kyo!” she exclaimed, nearly dropping her bundle in her surprise. “Goodness, you scared me!”

“Sorry. What’s going on here? Who are those people?”

Mei sat down at the table, and gestured for Kyo to do the same. “They’re from a place called Dome City. They say they’re here to help.”

“Help?” he said, sitting at the table too. “Help how?”

“It’s a safe place. A real city, hidden, like our houses here. A whole city!”

“There’s no such thing as a safe place.”

“There is! They say it was destroyed, and they’ve rebuilt it. Nobody knows it’s been rebuilt. Kyo! This is such a great chance!”

She reached out to grab his arm, but he didn’t react when she did.

“That’s crazy, Mei. There’s no safe place.”

“There is! Dammit Kyo, there is! Can’t be worse than here! And… And I’m tired. Tired of living like this.” She let go of him, and started gesturing as she spoke, getting more excited. “They have shelters, and they have food, and places to hide, and ways to escape. They’ve got everything we don’t have!”

Kyo shook his head. “It sounds to good to be true. Why are they looking for people? Wouldn’t they rather stay hidden?”

“Yeah, they need more people. Isn’t it the same for us? Don’t we need each other? You’re a doctor, it was great when you came live here. Don’t you get it? You can’t just live on your own forever!”

“I’m not on my own…”

“Yes, exactly! What about Isamu? Wouldn’t you want her to be somewhere better? You’re her father for crying out loud. You can’t just-”

“I’m not,” Kyo said, closing his eyes and rubbing them.

“You’re not… what?”

“I’m not her father.”

“… what?”

Kyo took a deep breath and opened his eyes again. “I’m not her father. I found her when she was a baby, after an alien attack. Her real parents were killed.”

Mei looked at him with a rather dumbfounded expression. “But… What about… That’s not what you…”

“I know. I’ve just been living one big lie. I wasn’t even supposed to. When I found her, all I thought was about finding somewhere safe for her and moving on.”

“Well this is it! You’ve found it!”

“That’s the problem, there is no such-”

A crashing sound interrupted their conversation. They both turned to see Isamu laying on the floor. She looked like she had tripped, and taken down the bundle of firewood at the entrance with her. She looked up, locked gazes with Kyo, and they kept looking at each other with the same surprised expression on their faces.

It was Mei who broke the silence. “Isamu! Wh- Isamu!”

The girl had stood up and ran away even before Mei had finished saying her name.

“Isamu, wait!”

Kyo stood and rushed out without looking left or right. Isamu had a good headstart, and after she dove into the underbush, he lost her completely.

“Isamu! Wait!” Kyo called, and kept searching. “Isamu!”

Isamu!

Isamu opened her eyes slowly. She felt horrible, and couldn’t tell up from down. Kyo was looking at her, and calling her name. She was laying down on a soft bed, laying chest down and her head turned to the side.

“F… ather…”

“Good, you’re finally awake.” He put a hand on her back, and stroked it softly. “Don’t try to move, just rest. You got really hurt.”

The room smelled of antiseptic and blood, a mixture that made her feel sick. It took her a while to recognize her own room.

Dome City… I’m back…

“It’s okay, rest. I was worried, it took you a while to wake up.”

“What… happened…”

“You came through the window,” Kyo said, pointing behind him. “What a mess you made, there was glass everywhere. Who stabbed you in the back?”

“Uh… some girl… I can’t… I can’t remember.”

“Okay, don’t worry for now. You’re still coming out of the anesthesia. Just rest.”

Isamu continued talking in a mumbling voice. “I was dreaming of us. Back when I found out. Back then… You said you would never lie again.”

Kyo sighed, and tucked Isamu’s hair behind her ear. “I did. I won’t lie to you again.”

“Am I going to die?”

Kyo smiled. “We all do eventually, but not today. You’ll be fine. That’s what I’m here for, to patch you right up if you get hurt.”

Isamu managed a ghost of a smile before falling asleep again, with one thought in her mind.

I need a new knife.

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