Red Sky at Morning

Submitted into Contest #98 in response to: Write a story involving a character who cannot return home.... view prompt

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Fiction

Red wakes up that morning - like he does most mornings - with screams ringing in his ears and the bitter taste of smoke faint on his tongue.


He stares unblinking at the ceiling, like he does most mornings, taking a moment to simply be and breathe, to fill his lungs with cold air that does not choke him.


And then, like he does most mornings, he shrugs off his bed covers, twisted together and clammy with sweat, and makes his way to the open window, to determine by how many hours he has beaten the sun’s rise.


Today the moon is paling, low in the sky, and the sky blushes just barely pink. A good night, he thinks, and turns back into the room.  


In the corner furthest from his door, he keeps a large urn, covered to fend off the flies, and buried to its neck in soft earth. The water keeps cool even through the warmest summer days; it spills down his chin and chases the ash from his mouth.


He makes his way back to his bed and perches at the head, with a second mug of water that he sips at more slowly. Beneath his pillow is a simple bracelet, work in progress: two strands of twine, one dyed, one not, tied to form a series of brown and blue knots with no distinguishable pattern.


Red adds another woad knot to the end now. It had been Anjali’s idea, to keep track of the good night, when he slept until near morning, and the bad, when he could manage no more than a few hours rest, and trudged through the following day tired and aching. His first attempt, completed a few months after he’d first moved to Ngyad, had been barely coloured at all; his more recent efforts have been fairly evenly split. Anjali wears them all, bound around her wrists and forearms, or woven into her hair.


There’s maybe an inch of this bracelet left, he notes, as he tucks it back into place. Then, he sits a little further back on his bed, shoulders just brushing the wall behind him, and waits for the day to begin.


This is how Red spends most of his mornings.


****************************************************************************


Anjali knocks at his door sometime before noon, brown and blue knots hidden beneath long woolen sleeves, dark curls windswept and beaded with mist. 


He lets her in after the second tap and she nearly collapses into the single room that makes up Red’s cabin. She shrugs off her coat, tosses it over the back of his one chair, and throws herself down on his bed, closing her eyes. Red resigns himself to sitting on the floor. 


“Late night?”


She hums, non-committal; Red takes it for the confirmation he knows it is. She seems to be having a lot of those lately - he considers suggesting she starts making bracelets for herself - but he lets it lie. There’s a small pouch she keeps slung over her shoulder even now, and she’s been growing cagier these past few months, tight-lipped about the money she makes and how she’s earned it. He suspects she’s dabbling in the underground markets, but as long as she doesn’t seem to be in trouble he’s willing to wait for her to bring it up first.


He’s learned that he’s willing to ignore a lot where Anjali’s concerned. She’s the best friend he’s ever had, the first person to be kind to him after he moved to Ngyad, the first person to push herself into his life and refuse to leave. The hypothesis remains unproven, but he thinks there is little he could ever deny her, and less that he would not forgive. 


Even the way that she suddenly half sits up and turns, propped up on one elbow and punching his pillow flat to better suit her head.


Red folds his legs, and lets one hand slip beneath the bed.


Anjali fits, wherever she chooses to be. Perhaps through conscious effort, perhaps her natural disposition, or perhaps simply because she has never wished to be in those spaces where she might not belong. It’s hard not to envy her that ease, sometimes; mostly, he is just content that this is how she decides to spend so much of her time - here, in this cabin that is more like a hut, alone at the edge of town, with him.


Smooth scales brush over his skin, and he withdraws his hand from under the bed, bringing Green into the light, hissing.


Anjali, now lying on her front, head turned towards him to avoid crushing her face, cracks open one eye. One hand half rises in greeting. “Hey, Tobi.”


“Not her name.” She weaves lazily between her fingers, head resting in his palm, no more than half a foot long and the colour of fresh limes.


Above him, Anjali scoffs. “She doesn’t seem to mind. It’s better than what she’s got right now,” and Red can hardly argue with that. Still, Green’s important to him, a gift from a very old friend. He’d decided on her name just as he was choosing his own, and she remains his only connection to the world that had shaped him growing up, that believed him to be dead and someone else to boot, that would not welcome him back gladly if he tried to return.


Green had been all he had with him, when the fires started and he’d taken his chance to escape.


Green, a fistful of coins and a half-full waterskin, but neither of the latter two lasted long, and it sounds less dramatic besides.


Anjali doesn’t know his full story, though she knows more than anyone else. Still, as always, she doesn’t press, merely drops her hand and holds it out to him.


He takes it, forming a temporary bridge that Green takes due advantage of. Anjali sits up slowly, cupping her palms together. She nods her chin to the space beside her, and Red climbs up to join her, cross-legged with his back against the wall. He drops his head onto her shoulder - she is a half-inch taller than him and eternally smug - and they sit there in silence for a moment, soaking in each other’s company.


Eventually, Anjali coughs, clearing her throat. “So. Tell me about old man Fincham, again.”


****************************************************************************


Once upon a time, Red had had a home, though he had not been known as Red then to anybody, including himself. 


Once upon a time, he had been happy there, though the weight began to drag on him as the years went by, until finally he decided he needed to leave or else he’d drown.


When he had moved to Ngyad, when he had found his little cabin, he had been adamant that it was just that - a house, a building, four walls and a roof, and nothing more. A place to eat and sleep and be.


And his cabin - utterly perfunctory, with his one bed and one table and one chair, a small chest of clothing and a buried urn of water and half a hollowed out log for Green to sleep in - is still just that. Nothing special, or personal. Very little that he would miss if the fires came for him again.


But, later that day, as Anjali drags him to her house, citing fear of disownment as reason for why Red has to come back with her, while lamenting the fact that her own family seems to like him more, he can’t help but think that he might have found a home for himself here all the same.


June 18, 2021 01:43

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