She had only agreed to the cat, and that quite reluctantly. She was fond of cats in general, particularly her Siamese, Mojo, after he passed the frantic kitten stage. But this cat-Nal or something-that was a completely different issue. She was cross and ugly, a scraggly orange mess. It was rather a surprise she hadn’t been euthanized already.
But the boy had asked so nicely. And she was retired so it wasn’t that much work.
By the second day, she was chewing her tongue in frustration. Nali had scratched Mojo, violently hoarded the food, and Mrs. Vessler banished the hissing mess to the porch.
Ethan knew he shouldn’t go back. He had to keep moving, had to keep training. He kept his hood up, stayed quiet, kept moving. That was how he would stay safe. That’s how he would keep others safe. That’s why he left Nali behind. It would be better for her than out on the streets with him. He couldn’t be selfish. He mustn’t be selfish. He had to be strong. Live up to his name.
“Despite the ruining of poetry and all that,” his aunt, well, sort of aunt, said, “I ain’t never met no butterfly people. You can’t munch, nap, wake up, and be able to fly. It’s not the way it works. Wouldn’t be fair.”
“So, what are we?”
“Frogs. You know, they start off small. Don’t know what they’re going to be. But they swim. Keep swimming, and they grow, little limbs so slowly, just nubs at first but they make them swim better, farther so they keeps swimming. And their legs keep growing and their tail disappears but they don’t mind ‘cuz now they can do other things. Kids today don’t know no history. And it messes you all up. You think we were born this way. Your mother was a terrible storyteller. She’d jump all over the place, backtrack, forget to explain stuff, overexplain others. But we had never heard those stories, so we listened, and she got better. Now she’s a master but her stories have all been told and you ain’t got any to practice with.”
So, that was it. Just keep working, training, he’d get there, whether it was fighting, or storytelling, or being a hero like his father. It would just take longer. Just keep swimming. That’s what he thought.
“Just because it’s your best doesn’t mean it’s good enough,” his aunt told him as he lay under her knife, slimy with sweat. She thought his scars were his fault, was tired of rescuing him.
He was cold. He didn’t like being alone. He missed the weight of Nali on his shoulder. He needed to focus on something else. He hadn’t slept.
He was just going to see her once. Just 20 minutes or so. Just let her know he hadn’t forgotten her, smooth down her fur. And then he would go.
Mrs. Vessler found him on the porch, all curled up, wet with morning fog, his skinny brown arm over his eyes, Nali purring possessively on his head.
He woke up sharp, head twitching, shoulders up, “I’m sorry, sorry, I shouldn’t have stayed. I didn’t mean to,”
She shushed him, handing him a mug of hot chocolate.
He tried to refuse but she insisted, “You’ve been out here all night, haven’t you?”
He nodded, shamefaced.
“Then you need something to warm you up. My grandchildren always have it when they come over.”
And they just sat, the boy with one hand warming on the mug, the other scratching the reverberating cat behind the ears, letting the steam bead on his eyelashes, watching the marshmallows bob, listening to the creak of her rocking chair as she drank her green tea behind him.
He finally drank. He tilted his head, pushed the marshmallows down until they melted.
“Shouldn’t you call your parents?” she asked.
“I can’t,” he said. “They’re good people,” he rushed to say, “they’re just far away.”
“Someone’s got to be worrying about you.”
“Yeah,” he nods, “Sure.” There were people. Plenty of them. So many colors. Mr. Bill Waters, dark green with his gruff concern and watermelon gum. Marja, rose pink, with warm hands and rabbit eyes. Even the man who sold him his bike, with the faded blue of his past regrets that named him spidered across his face. And Jessie…brilliant purple, beautiful and strong. He missed her. But he wasn’t safe.
Her tea was done. She shoved her chair back, “Come on.”
He wiped his feet, slipped his shoes off, paused to rinse the mug out before following her into the back.
“It’s small,” she said, shifting pillows and straightening the covers, “but it should work. It was my daughter’s when she was a girl.”
He stared at the Dalmatian sheets, tracing one of the capering cartoon puppies. He wanted to stay.
She was a soft cream, like the white of her own cat, like the quiet of the house, like the stale marshmallows in his cocoa. And she was lonely, just like him. It wasn’t so bad for them to not be alone anymore.
“I can’t pay you,” he said. Really, the ten dollars a day he had offered for just Nali’s care was hard enough, “but I can work.”
He did work. Hard.
He started off with Mojo, rubbed some kind of slather on his cut, said he’d made it himself, learned it from some sarin something. He spoke the word with reverence, forgetting to explain. She guessed it must be some sort of doctor, had a slight fear of voodoo. He was foreign, after all, with a lilted accent, slightly singsong with mountain-and-valley words. But she didn’t hear any spells.
He was very apologetic about the injury, had a tense talk with Nali as if she could understand him, but was still protective. “She had a hard life,” he said.
She could lose him in such a little house. He was so quiet. She followed the rumble of the cat purring to find him.
“He doesn’t talk much, does he?” her pastor said.
She learned to notice and ignore his silent asterisks. Little things like that accent, the friends he never named, the way he always wore long sleeves.
She had thought he might be illegal, had even mentioned it.
“No, I’m technically a citizen. My mother was American.” He didn’t say why he didn’t think she was American anymore. “I was born here, on a morning dark with rain,” he says, as if retelling a story.
He never said what he was.
“So, how did she keep you?” Mr. Waters asks. He knew Mr. Waters would call; knew he was still vexed with worry.
His voice drops to a whisper, “The marshmallows. They were stale. She said her grandchildren have them every time they come over, so they haven’t come. Not in a long time. And that room, she changes the sheets every Wednesday, even though that’s the lowest and it hurts her back. She only does hers once a month. You don’t need me. You’ve got a family. But I figured since she was lonely, too, we could help each other.”
They called him her “young gentleman” now. He was always working, trimming hedges in Mr. Davidson’s yard, going fishing with Clarence, doing her grocery shopping, finishing the dishes. And nobody beat him at checkers. He was good at gardening, though he hated to pull dandelions, said they were good for the stomach and the heart. The leaves for the stomach, the bright color for the heart.
She still doesn’t like the cat, but she doesn’t mind if she can keep the boy.
It was good just having someone else to breathe in that house. She looked over at him, Nali taking ownership of his shoulder, Mojo nestled at his feet, his needles clacking.
She was surprised when Mrs. O’ Bryant had started teaching him, but he took up knitting with the same serious precision as he did everything. It was his idea. His hands always had to be moving. She didn’t know where he had got the rainbow metallic needles. While he could use more color in his clothes, he had a kindergarten love for bright and shiny things. She had seen his sticker book, full of cheap vending machine stickers that changed with the angle, from travels he didn’t talk of with a companion he didn’t name. It was right next to the two books he told her she couldn’t look at, they weren’t “very nice."
He found cleaning helped. Made him calmer, made the world seem easier. He had never realized the power of an empty sink. And he worried if it was right to be happy over something so simple.
“My father fought dragons,” he tells her one night, standing over the sink. He knows she won’t believe him, think it’s all metaphorical.
“My father fought dragons, and I do dishes.”
She hears the failure in his voice. “Somebody has to,” she says. “There’s no shame in it. Nobody could fight dragons, if there wasn’t someone washing dishes. There’s nothing wrong with a normal life, nor happiness if it’s honest. Isn’t that what they fight dragons for?”
He thinks back to his aunt and the frogs. One day, the tadpoles leave the water, into strange air, and they never go back the same. They can’t keep swimming forever.
He knows now why most of the fairytale heroes were unhappy, the orphans, the disinherited, the ones with nothing to lose.
There will always be more dishes than dragons.