The sun was up when Julian closed his eyes.
When he opens them, the light around him is a glossy shade of blue like he’s underwater and there’s sunlight all around. And, yet, he hasn’t moved.
The treehouse stands, still, where it always has. The same yellow bean bag rests, full of holes and covered in crayon stains, near the window. Tacked to the wood are the same old posters from various video games and musical groups he enjoyed when he was still small enough to fit comfortably in this place. Their coloring is a bit off, as everything is tinted that strange, shiny cerulean. There’s some kind of film over everything familiar, like it’s still there, just slightly out of reach.
The discolored air shimmers like it’s full of dust particles. Like magic, maybe.
“Oh, sweet lymykyn’s feet. We weren’t expecting any guests,” an unfamiliar voice exclaims in an oddly watery tone to Julian’s right.
Julian startles, twisting around to see two humanoid figures huddled around a small table. Julian recognizes the table from his childhood, still the same blocky red and yellow—or, purple and green—plastic that somehow seems more ridiculous than ever. One of the figures is halted where it stands, holding a heavy-looking tray of some unknown kind of bird. There’s no oven to be seen, but there’s a bow on the wrist of the oven mitt they wear.
Neither figure bears a face.
“Excuse me,” Julian says, as calmly and politely as he can manage, “but what, exactly, are you doing in my treehouse?”
The figures, both painted an odd shade of blue in the watery light, turn to each other as though they’re sharing a look. Neither of them has eyes, and yet it doesn’t seem odd.
“Treehouse?” the seated figure echoes. Their voice is slightly lower than the other’s, though they, too, sound like they’re speaking through a filter.
"Yes, a treehouse. My treehouse, built in my backyard. What are you doing in it?”
What are you? Julian thinks, but doesn’t say.
“Son, there are no trees here,” the standing figure says, gently placing the tray on the table.
“Well, that’s ridiculous,” Julian retorts as he gets to his feet. Standing feels strange, like there’s less gravity weighing him down here than there should be. He shakes his head and moves toward the window. “If there were no trees, there’d be no—”
Julian stops himself short. Outside the window there’s—nothing. The treehouse floats in what looks like open space, nothing to be seen but a glowing blue sun shining heatless light into Julian’s eyes.
“You can see why we were confused,” one of the humanoids says.
Julian should be scared. Just a minute ago, he laid down in his childhood treehouse for the first time in years. There was a years-old layer of dirt and dust on everything, and his old blankets smelled like sawdust and stale summer air, but he was exhausted in a way much deeper than he could explain, so he had taken a deep breath and laid down anyway.
Leaned into the window, blue sunlight in his eyes, Julian takes an experimental breath.
“How am I breathing?” he thinks aloud.
“Beats me,” one of the figures chirps. “There hasn’t been oxygen here since the second war.”
Julian shifts around to look at them, his mind whirling with confusion, and, yes, they’re still there, faceless and hairless and about half his size. They almost look like pixies, their skinny, blue fingers much longer than their palms.
“I’m so sorry to be rude,” Julian starts, “but I really have to ask. Who in the world are you?”
“Well, I’m Poriel, and that’s Inadrien—”
“Yes, thank you, that’s great, but what I mean is—what are you?”
Another shared look.
“Well, we’re lorflings,” answers one of them like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Inadrien, Julian thinks, the one with the ridiculous oven mitt and the freshly-baked bird. At this point, with them sitting next to each other and neither of them having mouths, he’s losing the ability to tell which one says what.
“Lorflings,” the other one—Poriel—repeats. “From the planet of Lorfen? Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of it.”
“I… Should I have?”
Poriel scoffs. “Well, I would certainly hope so. Lorflings are only responsible for inventing the tomeclever and the rellinaken. Without those, the Tulachens never would have won the war.”
Julian blinks, more than slightly lost. “Which one?” he manages after a moment.
“Well, you said the—the Toolasomethings won the war, but you also said there were two.”
“Oh, there have been more than just two. I can count seven wars just this millennium,” Inadrien says. “The universe is a big place, son, full of lots of angry creatures.”
“Species go to war against each other pretty much every other decade. This last one was the Ronomoans and the Tulachens. The one before that was the Caomyzhas and the Pikidus. That one was ugly. Pikidus are tiny, feisty little buggers that like to make things messy, will sneak into your ears and pull at your brain cords just ‘cause they fit in the hole. No sense of honor.”
Julian should feel scared. He should be terrified. He’s stranded in the middle of space with two creatures he can only describe as lorflings because that’s what they told him they are, with rumor of dozens, if not hundreds, of other species of alien creatures that apparently enjoy starting wars in their free time. The sun is blue, and the air that is apparently not oxygen flows like water around him, and he should definitely not be here. This is his treehouse, but he doesn’t belong here.
And, yet, he doesn’t feel afraid.
“Yah, why don’t you come sit down so we can talk to you proper?” Poriel says, all gruff and grouchy. Inadrien seems much calmer, much more diplomatic. If this all wasn’t so strange—so literally alien—Julian could almost say they remind him of his parents.
Large slicing knife in hand, Inadrien makes an encouraging gesture at the only empty chair at the table, and Julian figures there’s not much else he can do.
“So,” starts Poriel as Julian sits down across from them. Sitting down is a different kind of odd than standing; it feels like he’s falling in slow motion. “You wanna tell me why it is you know so little about everything?”
“Well, it’s not exactly in the high school curriculum,” Julian says.
“Poriel, I think he’s an earthling,” Inadrien suddenly stage-whispers, and there’s no expression on their face but those are definitely the shoulders of someone who is startled.
“Don’t be silly, Dri; there haven’t been any earthlings on this side of the universe in centuries.”
“Are you talking about humans?” Julian interrupts, more than a little intrigued.
Poriel snaps their long, skinny fingers like they’ve discovered something. “Yes, I believe that’s the term they used.”
“You’re saying humans were here hundreds of years ago?”
Inadrien hums as they transfer a decent amount of sliced bird directly onto the table in front of Poriel. “I’ll never forget that one earthling that claimed it had invented time travel.”
“Not true, by the way. Travel between time and space is much older than most of the galaxies in the universe, let alone Earth and its dwellers.” Poriel shakes their small, blue head. “Arrogant, those humans. Always so proud and with nothing to show for it. Guess that’s to be expected in an isolated galaxy.”
Julian frowns. “What do you mean by that?”
“Well, you know, most galaxies and dimensions are interconnected, or at least closely related to one another, but not that one. That one’s called an isolated galaxy because it’s so far removed. Not another galaxy within a million light-years. No wonder humans think they’re the center of the universe.”
“Just center of the galaxy,” Inadrien quips.
While they speak, one of Poriel’s fingers files into a point at the tip that they use to spear a piece of meat. Then, as Julian watches, the humanoid’s oddly skeletal chest begins to unravel and open up into what Julian can only describe as a mouth. Fiber-like tentacles reach out for the meat that is brought close, pulling it inside and closing up around it.
It’s such a bizarre thing to witness that Julian can’t help but laugh. This is all so bizarre.
“Say, what’s it like?” Inadrien asks as they lower a portion of meat in front of Julian. Julian doesn’t exactly have the appetite, but he knows that saying no would be rude. “Being human, that is.”
Julian thinks for a moment, about high school and all the mean kids who love to talk and talk and talk, about the stress of a first job, and the idea of college and growing up and having to work for most of his life just for a few years of peace at the end, if health even allows that. Then he thinks about his parents and all they’ve gone through just to be accepted in the world, all the history they’ve had to suffer and shoulder and rise above. He thinks about how accepting they are themselves despite all the intolerance they’ve faced and how much effort they put into making sure Julian knows that, no matter what and above anything else, he is a person, and he matters.
So much value in that one little sentiment. That he’s a person.
Julian supposes that’s the consequence of isolation: placing infinite value on the only things you know to be real.
“Stressful,” Julian decides to say and suddenly feels very heavy.
“Do you think that’s why you’re here?” Inadrien asks. Julian looks up through furrowed brows.
“What do you mean?”
Inadrien waves the cutting knife absentmindedly. “You fell asleep before you came here, right?” Julian nods. “Well, it’s not uncommon for gifted members of a species to be able to cross dimensions in their dreams. Maybe you’re here because there’s something in your world that you’re trying to avoid.”
“Or something you’re trying to find,” says Poriel.
Julian frowns even harder, thinking back to before he got here. He had climbed up into his old treehouse with a tiredness in his bones that he couldn’t quite shake. The all-too-familiar feeling of lingering anger after an argument was settling like boiling sand beneath his skin, and he had just wanted to get away. Not for the first time, he was a growing boy that missed childhood, when things were easier and relationships weren’t wires—tensed and ready to snap with any semblance of pressure. He’d ventured into his childhood castle in an attempt to escape there, to when he was young and less weighed down by baseless anger and intrusive thoughts. When he could still admit love for his fathers and not understand why so many people thought it was wrong.
Suddenly and inexplicably, the fear Julian expected to feel from the moment he opened his eyes comes rushing in, and he’s finally afraid. What if he’s stuck here? What if he can never go back?
“How do I get home?” Julian whispers. “Is it as easy as waking up?”
“Maybe,” Inadrien says, something like sympathy in their voice. “But I believe you have to want it first.”
“Waking up isn’t always easy, either,” Poriel adds. “Sometimes the world you wake up to isn’t necessarily better than the one you fell asleep to. You have to be willing to face the bad in order to find the good.”
“I am,” Julian decides, getting to his feet so fast that he floats up a little in the process. “It’s been a lovely sort of bizarre being here, and I appreciate your hospitality, but I want to go back.”
“Oh, take some baked rikkle back with you, won’t you?” Inadrien exclaims, holding out a sliver of the weird bird.
“Thank you, but no,” Julian laughs, smiling gratefully at the two creatures. He moves to the center of the treehouse and spins in a circle where he thinks he woke up, contemplating how he should do this. “Maybe if I just… lay back down?”
“Hey, kid,” Poriel calls as Julian slowly lowers onto his back. “And I mean this in the nicest way possible, but try not to come back, yeah?”
Julian looks over at the sideways creatures, and they have no mouths or eyes but he could almost swear that they’re smiling. He smiles back.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he says.
Julian opens his eyes to the sound of his name being called. It takes a moment for his eyes to adjust to the light—the wonderfully beautiful, yellow light—while the familiar dusty smell of his treehouse fills his lungs. With a gasp, he rockets into a sitting position, nearly falling back down with the unexpected weight
of himself. It seems he had forgotten just how much gravity there is at home.
Home. He’s home.
“Julian!” his father calls from the base of the tree. Julian’s heart lights up, all hard feelings from the fight they’d had earlier dissolved by how glad he is to hear his voice. He shuffles closer to the window, where the yellow bean bag sits, untouched. He can hear his father clearer here. “Look, Jules, I know you’re still upset, and I understand. School has been hard for you lately, and I’m sorry. I know how hard that can be.”
Julian sucks in a breath that gets stuck in his throat. He wants nothing more than to open the hatch in the center of the treehouse, leap down the ladder, and wrap his father in an apologetic hug. But he waits.
“If you want to stay up there for a while longer, I understand,” Julian’s father continues, voice muffled by wood and maybe emotion, and Julian waits. “I just want you to know that your father and I are here for you, like we always have been, and if you decide you want to talk about it, we’re more than happy to listen.”
Julian looks around. At the table in the corner, nothing on it but dust; at Bobby Brown on the wall, his hat and jacket a normal shade of red; at the bean bag beside him, still full of holes, still the same faded yellow. The air shimmers here, too, in a different way. Nothing like space; nothing like magic.
But that’s okay. Julian doesn’t need magic.
“So, uh, yeah,” his father calls after a moment of silence. “Again, you’re welcome to stay up there, but if you’re hungry, there’s dinner on the table. Your father made something new today, and I can’t honestly even tell you what it is, but he’s so excited I think he might just burst open right at the stomach and devour it all himself.”
What a bizarre idea, Julian thinks, and laughs because it’s true.
“He better not; I’m starving!” Julian calls back, and when he gets to his feet to look out the window, his father is smiling up at him. The sunlight makes the crow’s feet dig deeper into his eyes, and the tip of his nose shines.
An isolated galaxy, so dreadfully alone. And, yet, here they are, together and smiling. Maybe that’s their own kind of magic. Maybe—
“Well, you better get down here, then, ‘cause I left him in there by himself and we both know how little self-control he has when there’s food around,” Julian’s father jokes.
Julian shakes his head, laughs. The air that is definitely oxygen dances in his lungs, and the sun seems to shine a little brighter around him.
Maybe being human isn’t all that bad.
“Coming,” is all he says.
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