The coffee was bitter and the pancakes sweet, just the way I liked them, but I couldn’t focus on the food. Not with the boy sitting across from me.
His head hung limply. His chin quivered, and every now and then, his face would contort as tears ran down his cheeks. But he quickly regained control.
I took a sip of the black coffee then set the mug on the table. “How old are you?”
The boy glanced up with watery eyes. He tightened every muscle in his face absolutely determined to not shed another tear.
“I suppose every boy has a different age where they become a man. Now, eat your food.”
He didn’t look at me but picked up the fork and began to put bits and pieces of eggs in his mouth. I watched him, determined that we weren’t going to leave until he finished it.
The ground shook a bit like the last of the great towers had finally fallen over. It made the dull lamp flicker, which made the boy look up at me with round eyes.
My face didn’t change, and I motioned to the food. The swollen eyes glazed over, and he returned to poking at his toast with the fork.
The boy thought I was always angry and mean, but in this world, being soft meant death. I would rather him not learn the hard way, though I was getting better at understanding how he worked. He did not react well to harsh realities. Scolding, for some reason, always made him burst into tears. I have no idea why. I must looked especially scary to him when I get angry.
When I finally took all I could take of waiting, I put out the lamp and left the oil for some other traveler. We went out onto the streets where cracks scarred the road that had once been alive with the rusted metal beasts that covered it, or so I was told. We walked over the mounds and heaps of debris while the boy examined what appeared to be very pale remnants of painted yellow lines until a clap of thunder that shook the sky sent him scurrying back to me.
I took his shoulder because he couldn’t walk before me without getting scared or behind me without getting distracted.
“Stay close, boy.”
He looked up at me.
“My name is Stone, remember?”
No, I hadn’t remembered, and I felt a little bad to have to ask him for the sixtieth time.
Stone. Stone. Stone.
I tried to pound the simple name in my head.
The sky was dark, and lightning raced across it like shooting stars. It wouldn’t rain though. It was a dry electric storm fueled only by ships encircling the air above the clouds.
I kept one hand on my light sabre, watching for any signs of life, but I couldn’t help but notice Stone. Every step was a struggle. He would drag his feet or walk a bit ahead of me so he could draw a symbol of some sort in the dirt.
It made me believe that he had come from a completely separate side of the sphere. One where leaving signs of your whereabouts wasn’t an utterly idiotic action, but I said nothing. I was too tired to deal with fussing at him and having him cry again even if it meant we might be ambushed.
When Stone’s tarrying nearly made me have to jerk him forward, I looked down and stopped.
“What is that?”
“What?” He looked up with wide eyes. “That’s my name.”
I knelt to examine it. I could speak and understand his language, but I couldn’t read it.
“You can read and write?”
“Yeah.” He sounded surprised at my interest.
Of course I knew the likes of him could never survive on his own, but his ability to write made me think that he had come from some sort of civilization and not just some refugees running around the ruins.
He looked down, and his cheeks turned the oddest shade of red.
“I – I mean, I ‘m not very good. I’m only eight, but…”
“You’re fine. Who taught you?”
He didn’t answer, but I was no longer desperate for answers about his past. I took his shoulder, and continued leading him.
I noticed the glint appear in his eyes but couldn’t manage to grab him before he took off sprinting with a smile stretched across his face.
“Boy! Er…Boy! I mean, Stone!”
I began sprinting after him not able decide whether to be angry with this ignorant kid or worried that I was having to let my guard down to chase him. When I finally caught up, I grabbed the collar of his shirt but managed to calm myself before dragging him backwards.
“Look, a tree!” He looked up at me, and all my anger flushed away at the sight of those ruddy cheeks holding a smile that made me almost forget the sad state I’d found him in.
He rubbed his hands along the rough skin of the pale trunk. It was dead. It was the deadest looking thing I’d ever seen. Nothing could look deader than this dead tree.
“This one’s not alive any more, though,” he mumbled as the light faded from his eyes.
“You like trees – uh… Stone?”
“Yeah, there were a whole bunch where I’m from”
“And where is that?”
He didn’t reply but stared at the tree as his lip began to quiver and his eyes turned wet.
“No.” I took his arm and pulled him away. “None of that.”
The first few days after I’d found him, I had let him cry as often as he wanted, as exhausting as it had been. He refused to eat. He wouldn’t speak. He just hobbled around with red eyes.
But he was afraid of me, so he did what I told him. That was the only good thing about this.
I took his wrist and pulled him away from the tree. At least, he walked. The last time he had seen some dead leaves of familiar colors that reminded him of where he was from, his legs suddenly lost their use, and I had to carry him.
While he cried.
The most irritating experience I have ever experienced.
I still didn’t know where he came from. Or what had happened to him. I figured that if he had wanted my sympathy, he would have told me, but my kind wasn’t sympathetic anyway.
I had found him inside one of the fallen towers. Past mazes of debris and amidst ruinous heaps. I could just sense that there was life in there somewhere despite my common sense telling me otherwise. When I found him, I could tell by the look on his face that there would be no consoling him to come out.
But he was so small and nimble! I had to get on my hands and knees to catch that boy, and when I’d finally grabbed him, he let out the most piercing scream I’d ever heard, going well beyond what I deemed mankind capable of. A very good defense tactic, and if I had actually meant him harm, I most certainly would have let him go.
But we had our moments. Some nights when bombs sounded and thunder split the sky open, he would crawl into my lap and hold on to me for his life. It made me almost wish that I had children of my own. Then, I looked at Stone and the world around him, and it made me realize that I would never want them to experience this.
My mind wandered back to the present when I felt Stone lean against my side and curl his wrist in attempts to hold my hand despite the tight grip I had on his wrist. It made for an uncomfortable walk, but I didn’t complain. This boy’s feelings meant more to me than any inconvenience that could come up, but I often wondered…
If the people traveling with him had truly been as oblivious as him, it was no wonder that they had all died, yet how had he survived? He was just so soft. Then I wondered if Stone’s inconvenient nature had caused him to be abandoned which made me sad and angry at the same time.
I let out a sigh. I hadn’t meant it to be audible, but it made Stone look up at me. I didn’t like it when he watched me. It made me feel like he was trying to find something out about me. If he wanted to know something, why wouldn’t he just ask?
It was as if he had read my mind.
“Is this what you do? You rescue people?” His voice was hoarse from crying.
He went back to staring at the debilitated path.
I pondered the question. It was so interesting. I had never actually considered it.
“I find lost ones like you and take them back to safety.”
“Yeah, but why?”
I glanced at him and his curious stare that stretched out over the land before us.
“Because that’s what I do.”
“What if you don’t find anyone?”
“I keep looking until I do find someone.”
He looked up at me. His eyes looked wet again. In this dull, gray world were everything was plain and dead, Stone’s blue eyes looked like lightning streaks.
I looked closer and realized that everything about him seemed lively. The ruddy cheeks. The pink lips. The peach skin. He just seemed so young and alive. Eight years old. I couldn’t even imagine. I was determined to protect that life at all costs.
He pursed his lips.
“Gray, do you think you could find someone for me?”
“I’ll try, Stone.”
I let him slip his hand in mine, but a roar from above the clouds made him wrap his arms around my leg and bury his face against me.
I looked up watching the sky with one hand on my light sabre, but I gathered my senses about me and realized that none of those ships in the sky would worry with two wanderers walking along the abandoned streets.
“We’re almost there. Come on.”
He sniffled and walked after me. I could feel the words forming on the edge of his tongue.
“Gray, am I a baby?”
I furrowed my brows then glanced at him. A baby? Didn’t the boy know whether or not he was a baby? Maybe not. He certainly cried like one.
“No, you’re just a boy having a difficult time growing up.”
He nodded and wiped his eyes.
Familiar scenes rose around us. When we finally reached the place, I stopped him and lifted up the door to the underground.
“We’re going down there again?”
“But I thought that…”
“This is the place.”
He began to climb down the ladder. I watched him then climbed down myself. The tunnels were dry, though I had heard that they were once wet with rivers. I lead Stone through the labyrinth. It was about another hour of walking, and all tunnels appeared the same. But I knew this was the place. I could tell by the lights the others and I had set up and the signs of life growing along the walls as we got closer.
I finally saw the familiar door and heard familiar voices, and I realized how exhausted I was. Stone clung to my shirt like it was for his life. We walked through the passageway, then all things familiar erupted to greet us.
“Grayson Macabre Scythe!” Silvanus heartily grabbed my arm, and I managed to give him somewhat of a greeting before he backed away to look at me. “Good to see you, brother.”
He glanced down at Stone with a wide grin. I nearly told him that smiling scared the boy, but Stone had his face buried against me.
“This is Stone.”
“Very nice to meet your acquaintance, Stone”
Silvanus knelt down and patted Stone’s head, but Stone squirmed away from the touch. Silvanus raised an eyebrow almost in an amused way and looked at me.
“He’s hard at trusting,” I mumbled.
Silvanus shrugged and returned to the dramatic, overly excited leader I knew him to be.
“It doesn’t matter.” He took my shoulders and spoke very quietly. “You’ve done it. You’ve actually done it. Now, there is a chance for survival. Our kind is saved! Is there more? Did you find more?”
“What?” I nearly took a step back but grew angry at Silvanus’s confused look.
“Well, you know we’ll have to make use of him, Grayson.” He watched my reactions carefully. “I know you don’t agree, but you know that this is what we’ve been searching for. We’ve never turned anything else away, but this is what we’ve looked for. Hope. A chance for children. You knew your mission, and now you’ve succeeded in bringing back a male.”
“He’s just a child!” I hissed.
“Well, of course, he would have to grow first. I figured you could take care of that since you’re the only one he trusts.”
“No, I belong above ground.”
“Not as the new raiser of this boy you don’t. Besides, I can already tell you’re attached. He would make a good son for you. With time, nature takes its course, and what’s to stop him from here taking a mate here? Perhaps Tilith.”
Of course he would recommend his daughter to be the one to save our kind.
At my hardened face, Silvanus frowned.
“You know the only children they spared were girls, and we are beyond the age…”
“Has it ever occurred to you that something like this could never work?”
Silvanus raised his eyebrows.
“What do you mean?”
Silvanus gave me a look like I was crazy, and I scowled.
“I don’t know how many species you know of that can successfully mix.”
Silvanus shrugged. “Human is close enough.”
“That’s not how these things work!”
Silvanus folded his arms. “Well, he’s the closest thing we have and the only fighting chance we’ve got.”
I sighed because as much as I disliked it, he was right. Silvanus and I were both well past the strength of our age where having children was possible, and many of the others were in the same position. We’d have to at least be under a hundred years old. The only ones of age were all females.
I rubbed my hands over my eyes too exhausted to think about it, then I saw Stone peeking out at me from his personal hiding place.
“Gray,” he whispered.
“It’s alright. These are friends.”
Stone glanced at Silvanus and winced.
“Is he a good monster like you?”
Silvanus blinked his colorless eyes probably in mulling over the comment, but then he smiled.
“What an adorable pet name the humans have for us, huh Grayson?”
I sighed not even feeling the need to tell him that monster was by no means an affectionate nickname that humans had for our kind, but judging from what I had learned about their beliefs, the term was certainly an accurate one. I was, however, going to have to tell him to ease up on the smiling because humans, especially Stone, was not a fan of jagged teeth.