Philadelphia

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
When lonely teen Fil reaches out to the new guy in town, he's dismayed to find that the stranger can't write, sign, or speak. But despite communication barriers, a friendship soon begins to form between them, one that has unexpected consequences for both Fil and his new companion.

Submitted: October 31, 2011

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Submitted: October 31, 2011

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"I heard somebody moved into the house up on the hill," Fil said, looking up at his father. Jorun nodded silently, stirring his steaming soup with a hand that was as large, hairy, and florid as the rest of his body. Every time Fil looked at him, he wondered if he was going to grow up to be that hairy. The idea of resembling a black bear wasn't particularly appealing, although he supposed that the extra fur would help him keep warm on days like this. It was freezing.

Fil himself was short of stature and slight of frame, with brown eyes and black hair that hadn't been cut in far too long. "Has anybody talked to him?" he asked. "Said hello?" 

"Not that I know of, son," Jorun replied. His dark eyes seemed distant as he sipped his broth. Probably thinking about work, Fil realized. As usual.

"I think after lunch I might stop by," Fil proposed. "You know. Make him feel welcome."

"Sounds like a fine idea."

Fil tapped his foot against the ground, eyes wandering over the room, trying to amuse himself as he waited for Jorun to finish his meal. Their house wasn't very big. What most people called the kitchen, living room, and dining room were all combined into one big Everything Room, a crowded, cluttered space full of dark wood. Compared to the bright, snowy open spaces outside, the Everything Room was kind of oppressive, but it was warm, which was all that mattered right now. Fil wished he could have some sort of super-powered internal heating system, so that he could stay outside and run around in the snow all day without getting cold and having to come back into this cave. He considered telling Papa this, but the hirsute man was already rising from the table, rinsing out his soup bowl in the sink and slipping on his outerwear.

"I'll try not to be late. Do me a favor and clean up around here, get dinner ready, that kind of thing?" Jorun asked. He smiled, the expression distracted but sincere, and Fil smiled right back.

"Sure, Papa," Fil told him. Jorun nodded and stepped out into the snow, letting in a waft of frigid air, and Fil shivered.

Jorun worked in plumbing and was especially busy this time of year, fixing busted pipes and overworked water heaters. He was tired, and he probably became even more exhausted whenever he allowed himself to think about the two or three million jobs still waiting for him after his lunch break. A lot of people got quiet when they were tired, right? Yeah. He was probably just tired.

Fil set about washing up the lunch dishes, allowing his mind to wander back to the stranger up on the hill. Wasn't there some kind of traditional welcome basket that people gave to new neighbors? He couldn’t remember what was supposed to go in it, so he'd have to improvise, make it a little more personal. Bread and soup would work nicely, along with some hot cocoa mix, and maybe something like a scarf and some gloves to help the stranger stay warm.

His school friends would probably make fun of him if they saw him fussing over this kind of domestic thing, and their insults to his virility would only quadruple when they realized that he was actually enjoying himself. Fil was glad they couldn't see him now. He had enough trouble keeping up his manly image.

Now, where could he find a basket? Did they even have a basket? He scoured the house for some wicker, but the closest thing he could find was a large blue plastic container—hardly traditional, but at least it was practical. You could never really have too many plastic containers, could you? From the closet he grabbed a clean, relatively new pair of black gloves and a reserved black scarf; from the pantry he snatched some cocoa mix packets, a few cans of soup, a loaf of bread. Then he set about arranging them in the plastic container so that they didn't quite look like they'd been thrown in willy-nilly.

After a few moments, Fil stepped back and looked at his handiwork. Awful, just awful. It was too empty. Or maybe it was too full. Or maybe it was blue plastic container. He sighed, shrugging although nobody could see him. It was probably best this way. He wanted the stranger to know that he'd put some thought into this whole basket thing, but not too much thought. He'd come off looking like he didn't have anything better to do, or like he was some kind of girl who had to have everything just so—even if those statements were true, he thought to himself with a small laugh.

He pulled on a few layers of outerwear and a pair of boots and took his basket out into the street, holding it carefully under his arm as he locked up the house. The air was crisp and it gnawed at his nose and ears; he sniffed as he looked up at the house on the hill. The cabin had always seemed kind of lonely up there by itself, watching over the crowded maze of streets and houses below it. Maybe the owner was lonely, too, and they'd chosen each other because they felt the same way about the world. Fil liked the sound of that. It was poetic, in a sad sort of way.

Fil chose the longer, more circuitous route up the hill, making his way through the forest instead of taking the more direct path through town. If anybody saw him walking around with a plastic container full of goodies under his arm, they'd start to think weird things about him. Weirder things, anyway.

The house stood out starkly against the blanket of snow at its feet, a dark tower that was nearly black against the white winter. There were no lights coming from the windows, no plume of smoke rising from the chimney, and Fil began to wonder if the rumors about the new arrival had been wrong. If so, he'd feel really stupid, bringing all this stuff up the hill for nobody.

Raising his gloved hand, Fil tapped lightly on the front door, just in case somebody was in there after all. If not, maybe he'd leave the food for the ghosts. A house like this had to have at least one ghost, and people all over the world left food for the dead all the time. It was a nice tradition, even though it didn't make much sense to him. It was a way of remembering those who had passed on—but why not honor the dead with something they could actually use, instead of with food, which they could hardly eat?

His musing was suddenly truncated by the front door swinging open with a loud creak. Fil was hit by a wall of warm air that blew back his brown hair, driving the chill off his face—and this suddenly struck him as very unusual. The stranger didn't have any fires going, did he? Maybe he was using electric heat.

The stranger seemed like he was around his early twenties, with reddish blonde hair that fell around his face and eyes in rebellious disarray. Their gazes met, and Fil found himself having to repress a shudder. The young man's eyes, while a very normal shade of golden-brown, locked onto him with an unusual focus. Fil shifted, flushing, and looked away, too uncomfortable to maintain that kind of eye contact for more than a second.

"Hi there," Fil greeted, shifting the plastic container in his arms so that he could extend his hand. The young man looked at it for a second, and then shook with him, his lips turning up in a smile so faint that Fil wouldn't have noticed it if he hadn't been paying attention. The stranger's touch was incredibly, almost painfully, warm. "My name's Fil. I live down in… that house," he said, pointing toward the small abode near the edge of the forest. From this distance, it looked even tinier than it really was.

The stranger smiled again, and this time the expression was more pronounced. He didn't say anything, but his eyes still locked on to Fil's face with disturbing intensity. Fil hopped from foot to foot, anxiety growing, but the stranger must have thought he was dancing to ward off the cold, because he stepped back and gestured for Fil to enter with a sweep of his hand. "Oh! Thanks," Fil said, tapping the snow off his boots before he stepped inside.

The air in the room was very warm, although Fil couldn't still identify any sources of heat. "Still getting settled, huh?" Fil asked, looking around. Aside from one chair and one table, there was no furniture in the entire living room. The only source of illumination was the white light shining through the windows, reflecting off the glittering snow outside.

The young man smiled.

"Um…" Fil swallowed. "I brought you some things… stuff that might be useful in the winter. I know moving's hard. Well, actually, I don't; I've always lived here. The town's small, but in a nice way. I don't like how noisy cities are. It's like you can't hear yourself think, you know?" The stranger blinked, perhaps for the first time since they'd met. "I'm talking a lot, aren't I? What about you? I don't even know your name yet," Fil laughed.

The stranger clasped his hands behind his back, smile lessening slightly. "You… you don't want to tell me?" Fil asked quietly, frowning. Another blink. "You… can't tell me?"

The smile reappeared on the young man's face. "Oh! Oh, I’m sorry, I didn't realize, uh… I'm sorry, I don't know any kind of sign language, or anything. Maybe you could write it down?" Fil suggested. The stranger's smile became slightly abashed. Maybe he didn't know how to write, either. "That must be kind of hard," Fil murmured. The stranger shrugged. "Well, since I don't know your name, can I just call you 'Friend'? I don't mind the whole mute thing, as long as you don't mind me talking and talking until your ear falls off. That's one of my biggest faults. You probably noticed that already."

Friend's chest shook in a movement that might have been a chuckle if any sound had come out. Fil beamed. "Okay! Awesome! Um, can I tell you about town?" Friend's smile brightened. "There aren't very many people here. Maybe a hundred. They're all very nice, but they're not used to strangers. They'll warm up to you, but it might take some time. It's especially hard during winter, I think. Everyone is holed up in their house trying to keep warm. Spring is nice, though. The snow melts and it's like the whole town is waking up from a long sleep, like a bear just getting out of hibernation." Fil paused, reddening, and Friend cocked his head at him. Oops. He'd never been able to just talk and talk without interruption before—and apparently, when nobody interrupted him, his words had a tendency to sound a lot like the thoughts in his head—poetic, almost romantic. How embarrassing. "Sorry," he murmured. Friend's brow twitched in confusion, but Fil decided not to try to explain. "Um… anyway," Fil continued. "There's not much to do here. We have an amateur playhouse, but that's pretty much it, unless you're into crafts or have a hobby."

Friend gave him a particularly piercing stare when the word hobby was mentioned, a squinting look of curiosity. "Oh, me? I, um… I don't really have any hobbies, myself. I read a lot. I was even offered a job at the library slash city hall slash school, but I didn't want anything to distract me from my education. I'm a senior in high school. I kind of want to finish strong, you know? A lot of people get to their senior year and start slacking off. I think they're tired of having to learn, or something—or maybe, they're not tired of having to learn, but they're tired of people evaluating them. Giving them grades. I don't know. I can't imagine anybody not wanting to learn. It keeps you alive, right?"

He sighed as Friend just smiled, again. The blonde was so hard to read; he couldn't tell if Friend was amused or annoyed. Maybe he should just leave now, before he made a nuisance of himself. He edged toward the door, Friend's level gaze tracking his every movement as he shuffled backwards.

"Anyway… I should get home," Fil murmured, smiling apologetically. Friend gave him a little frown. "I, uh… I don't want to overstay my welcome, or anything, and besides, I've got to go shopping and get dinner ready." He gave Friend a goodbye wave and bounced toward the front door, turning back just in time to see Friend give him a tiny wave, too.

Fil couldn't say exactly why, but that little wave filled him with a kind of sadness.

He stepped out into the cold and headed back down the icy hill, nearly falling on his rear more than once. As soon as the chill air cleared his head, he began to berate himself; he'd acted like an idiot back that, talking and talking and talking about things that Friend probably didn't care about in the least. If Papa had been there, he would have told Fil to shut his trap long ago. Poor Friend. He'd had to just stand there and listen to him yammer on. How boring for him.

Fil passed the rest of the day in quiet solitude, except for a few shallow pleasantries he exchanged with the town grocer as he picked up the ingredients for the night's dinner. Bags in hand, he kicked open his front door and immediately flipped on the radio, tuning it to some retro station with pleasant, cheery big band music; it made the house seem brighter, warmer. Strange how something like music, something that was supposed to touch only the ears, could affect all the senses—it could make a room brighter or darker, could make a scent sweeter or more sour, could make a taste more savory or more bitter. One day, he'd have to do an experiment to see how different kinds of music affected the way he experienced things. But he'd probably have to do it while Papa was gone at work, since he probably wouldn't be interested.

Although… Friend might be amused to hear about the results. 

The sun set quickly, but the night was hardly dark. The light of the stars and moon made the snow shimmer so brightly that the late evening seemed almost like dusk. Fil turned his stew down to a low simmer, glancing out the window with a frown. Papa probably wouldn't be home until late today; the townsfolk weren't taking care of their pipes very well this year, and most people didn't like to wait when it came to plumbing repairs. It might be hours before dinnertime.  

Fil grabbed a grapefruit from the fridge and a book off the shelf, plopping down on the Everything Room couch and cracking open the novel. It was a murder mystery, set in winter. Maybe the similarity in the settings of the real world and the fictional world would make the mystery more engrossing, somehow. That was another experiment he'd have to try.

It took him some time to keep his thoughts from wandering, but he settled into the rhythm of reading within ten or fifteen minutes and was soon absorbed in the story. He didn't know how much time passed, or how many big band songs had started and stopped, but it seemed like only a half hour had gone by before he was started by the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow on the stoop.

Fil popped out of his seat, turning up the heat under the stew and heading to the door to let in his father—but when he looked out into the cold night, he saw no one. Just a set of footprints, and his own blue plastic container sitting in the snow. Something small was lying in the bottom, and Fil crouched down, frowning, and pried open the lid.

It was a small stone, flat and triangular, almost like a guitar pick. The shiny rock was almost perfectly black except for a few pale, tiny ribbons of all kinds of color—navy blue, emerald green, maroon red, even a couple of flecks of pale gold. Like a river at night, Fil thought, turning it over in his hands. It was beautiful. He'd never seen anything like it.

A present? From Friend, in exchange for the welcome basket? Huh. Maybe he hadn't annoyed Friend quite as much as he'd thought.

 

***

 

Fil sighed as he waited on Friend's porch, fingers turning over the black stone in his pocket. The door cracked open, and Friend appeared, pleasant brown eyes locking onto Fil like a heat-seeking missile. "Hi, again," Fil said. Friend nodded, smiling. "I, uh, brought you this lamp," he muttered, thrusting a small fluorescent desk lamp into Friend's hands. "It didn't look like you had light in here. It must get kind of creepy after dark, huh?"

Friend shrugged, and stood back, allowing Fil to come inside. "Actually, um, I was thinking—did you want to come over to my house, instead?" Fil asked. Friend's bottom lip twitched downward in an expression that was almost a pout. "I mean, you don't have to, if you don't want to. It's just that—you know, I made lunch, in case you wanted something hot to eat. It doesn't look like you have a stove yet."

Friend raised his eyebrows briefly and parted his lips as if to say, "Aha." He then stepped out onto the porch and stood beside Fil in the snow, happily bouncing on the balls of his feet.

Fil stared at him, horrified. "I didn't mean right this second!" he exclaimed. "You've got time to put some clothes on; look at you, you're barefoot! Go back inside!" he said, shooing Friend toward the door. Friend frowned at him before disappearing back into his dark house, and he reemerged a few seconds later, wearing the gloves and scarf Fil had given him. Still shoeless and without a jacket, he stepped back outside, beaming.

"You… you do have shoes, don't you?" Fil asked. Friend glanced briefly down at his feet, which were buried beneath the white snowflakes, and looked back up at Fil, his wide grin never fading. "All right," Fil sighed, furrowing his brow. "But if you catch a cold or get frostbite, don't blame me."

Fil and Friend set off down the slippery hill. Although seventeen frosty winters had made Fil fairly experienced walking on ice, his feet still slid around a little beneath him—Friend, treading down the slope without any boots to assist him, didn't slip once. He didn't even look like he was trying.

He must have grown up in a very, very cold climate, somewhere far north where it was cold like this all year long. His body must have been so accustomed to the frigid climate that he could walk barefoot in snow without even feeling discomfort. Fil found himself wondering if Friend had pads on his feet, or something, like an arctic wolf. That would be kind of cool.

"Thank you, for this," Fil said, fishing the dark stone out of his pocket. It glinted in the sunlight like a jewel. "It's nice. We don’t have rocks like these around here, I think; when I was little I had this rock collection thing, of all the coolest ones I could find. I wish I still had the collection. I could put this one on the very top!" He grinned at Friend, who gave him a smile so wide that his eyes squeezed shut. Friend walked on with chin held high; he seemed very pleased with himself. "It'll just be us today. My pa—I mean, um, my dad's working in the next town over today. He likes to keep busy during winter. It's too bad. I think you'd like him. He's almost as quiet as you are," Fil laughed. Friend pressed his lips together in an expression of regret and nodded. "Anyway. I hope you like chicken. Chicken was on sale for twenty-seven cents a pound last week. How often does that happen? I bought like thirty pounds and shoved it in our freezer. We'll be eating it for a month."

Friend nodded cheerfully. "I like it too," Fil agreed. "Although seafood is my favorite, especially salmon. You hardly have to do anything to it and it still tastes awesome." At this, Friend cocked his head. "What, you don't think so?" Fil asked. Friend shrugged. "Aw. Okay. So your favorite meat. Is it beef?" Friend shook his head. "Some other kind of seafood?" Nope. "Lamb? Pork? Duck?" Nope.

Fil frowned, eyes glazing over as he tried to think of another kind of meat. "It's not one of those weird ones like snake or bear, is it?" he asked. Friend wrinkled his nose. "Uh... Oh! It's venison! It has to be!"

Friend smiled, and Fil cheered, skipping so gleefully that he slipped and nearly fell; Friend caught his wrist with a vise-like grip and pulled him to his feet. "Thanks. Wow. Strong," Fil said, laughing lightly. "Venison, huh? I've never had it. Must be good, though, if it's your favorite. I'll have to try it some time, although I don't know how to cook it. Do you?"

Friend gave him a very odd look, one that Fil couldn't identify no matter how hard he tried. There was a kind of twinkle in his eyes, a dark and mysterious sort of humor, but the smile on his face had faded somewhat. "You can't find venison at this marketplace, though. I'd have to go with my, uh, my dad to the next town over," Fil said, feeling a sudden flush of relief when Friend's unreadable expression was replaced with a much clearer one of mild pleasure.

"Well, uh, here it is," Fil muttered, digging in his pocket for his key and popping open the front door. Somehow, even with the wood stove blazing and a space heater whirring over in the corner, the Everything Room didn't even approach the sweltering warmth of Friend's house. Friend stepped inside, appraising everything with a neutral expression, and then leaned against the back of the couch, following Fil with his eyes. "My papa—my dad, I mean," Fil corrected, flushing, "he likes to hold on to stuff… as you can see." He waved his hand around his cluttered abode. "If you need anything for your house, please, just go ahead and take it. He probably won't even notice that it's gone. Except the couch," Fil added. "I know that it's perfect and amazing and anybody would want it, but we only have one, so you can't have it."

Friend raised his brows at this assertion and strolled around to the front of the couch, looking it up and down. Then he spun and plopped down into the center of the sofa, bouncing slightly before settling down into its comfy, plush cushions. He leaned back, and his eyes fluttered shut.

Yep. The couch had worked its dark magic on him, too. "Careful," Fil warned him. "You'll be asleep before you know it."

Friend was either asleep already, or he was so close to dozing off that he couldn't hear a thing. Fil pulled a container of chicken and dumpling soup and started heating it up, chuckling to himself. The only reason he was able to resist the couch at all was because he'd built up a kind of immunity to it over the years. A newbie like Friend would have been doomed from the second his rear end hit the cushions.

He watched Friend as the soup slowly warmed, feeling his smile slip off his face. An illiterate mute. Fil tried to imagine making his way through life without the ability to read, write, or speak. It must have been horrible, or at least very difficult—but Friend seemed to be surprisingly well off. Despite his disability and inability, he must have had a job at some point; he had enough money to buy a house, to purchase expensive cuts of meat like venison. He looked like he was healthy, and happy.

The only thing Friend was missing was a friend. Fil would have been more than happy to oblige, but he couldn't deny that the idea of having one-sided conversations for the rest of forever was a shade intimidating.

He turned back to the soup, which was bubbling at a slow boil, and gave it a stir.

And then the door burst open. Fil jumped, and the spoon in his hand went flying; Friend leapt out of his seat. The hairy figure in the door stood stock still, staring at them both.

"Son," Jorun said. "My job was cancelled; looks like the local plumber's schedule cleared up and he was able to take care of the work himself."

"Oh. Good," Fil said. Jorun turned his dark eyes toward Friend, who froze, meeting Jorun's gaze without the slightest hint of movement. "Company?" he asked Fil quietly.

"Right. Yeah. This is Friend. He's the guy who moved into the house on the hill."

"Friend?"

"Right," Fil said. "He's, uh… He can't talk, and he doesn't know how to write, so I don't know his real name," he whispered. Jorun raised his thick eyebrows. Friend smiled at him. "I invited him over to lunch so he could feel welcome here, in town. I didn't know you were going to come back so soon."

"You invited him over when you knew I wouldn't be here?" Jorun hissed in blatant disapproval. "When were you planning to tell me about him?"

"Come on, Papa. It's not like he's my girlfriend or anything; I wasn't trying to keep him a secret," Fil muttered. "Remember, last night, I told you—"

"Fil, you know that when I come home from work, I'm too tired to listen to anybody."

"So what?" Fil asked. "After eight-thirty, I should just keep my mouth shut, and schedule all of our conversations in the morning? No, please, don't go!" he called suddenly, as he caught Friend edging around the room toward the door. He sighed, and gave his papa his best pleading look.

"Yes, please, Friend, stay," Jorun murmured, shooting Fil a look that said, We'll deal with this later. Fil shrugged. By the time "later" rolled around, Jorun would be too worn out to care what Fil did with Friend, or how many secrets he kept.

Friend looked between Fil and Jorun, his eyes narrowed warily. "So, new to town, eh?" Jorun asked, sitting down at the table and beckoning for Friend to join him as Fil ladled out soup. Friend nodded. "Liking it so far?" Friend nodded again, but Jorun wasn't looking at his face when he did, so he missed the reply entirely.

"Odd things have been happening at the job lately," Jorun continued. "Pipes I just fixed a few weeks ago, busted again."

"Really? That's weird," Fil said. Friend watched Jorun's face with a steady gaze, listening intently, his relentless stare breaking only when he gave Fil a small smile of thanks for his soup.

"And it's not just the pipes that are busted. Most of these houses, the whole siding is ripped to shreds, like some kind of… giant cat's been using them as a scratching post. Strangest thing I've ever seen," Jorun murmured. Friend's eyebrows shot straight up, disappearing in his blonde hair. Jorun sipped at his soup. "Good stuff, son. But this is the fourth night in a row we've had chicken; what's the matter with some good beef?"

Fil frowned. "I told you. I bought thirty pounds of chicken last week; it filled up the entire freezer."

"What in the world made you do that?"

Fil's frown deepened, and although Jorun was too focused on his soup to notice the scowl, Friend had turned his eyes away from Jorun and was now looking straight at him. "I told you," he said, his voice so soft that he doubted anyone could hear him, "it was a great sale." He cleared his throat. "Anyway. Strange, what happened to those houses. I wonder what's causing it."

"Homeowners think it's some kind of… horrible teenage prank, but I can't think of any of our kids that would do something like that. Can you?" Jorun asked. Fil could think of three right off the bat—those imbeciles who had tried to flush his face down the toilet before winter break.

Suddenly Jorun's pager began to beep, and he broke away from his soup, chewing on a dumpling. "There's another one, right there. That makes three that cropped up just overnight. Unbelievable. Sorry, son. Gotta run. Good soup. Friend, it was nice to meet you."

Friend nodded at him without heart, seeming to realize that Jorun wasn't looking at him and wouldn't see the gesture anyway. Jorun flew out the door, slamming it behind him. His bowl seemed almost pathetic, lying there on the table without anybody to finish it.

Fil scooped up the bowl and dumped out its contents before it could look any more pitiful. "Sorry," he said. "My dad's not usually that distracted. Like I said. He's been busy this season. He's probably going to be even busier with these weird house problems."

He glanced over his shoulder, just in case Friend decided to reply in some way, but the young man seemed oddly reserved. For once, his laser gaze wasn't boring holes into Fil's brain—his eyes were downcast, glazed over with thought. "Um… everything all right over there? My soup didn't make you sick, right?" Fil asked, risking a fleeting smile. Friend's head jerked back up and his eyes regained their powerful focus, and he nodded, taking a few more bites to prove that Fil's dumplings had done no harm.

Maybe he was worried about his house falling victim to this strange "prank." He probably couldn't afford expensive repairs right now, considering how frugal he was being with his furniture.

Friend looked up and nudged Fil's bowl. "Oh, right," Fil murmured, sliding down into his chair and poking at his chunks of chicken with his spoon. If the damages to the houses really were some kind of prank, Fil hoped they caught the culprits soon. Then Papa could get back from work at a reasonable hour, and Friend wouldn't have to be so worried.

 

***

 

Early Saturday morning, Fil pried his reluctant body out of his bed and tumbled toward the door, yanking on two pairs of socks and as many pieces of clothing as he could find. By the time he got to the Everything Room, he looked like some kind of disheveled hobo, sleepily staggering under the combined weight of his hoodie, jacket, coat, and heavy fleece pajamas. It felt like somebody had the window open somewhere, or something.

His guess wasn't far from the truth. His father was standing at the door, holding it open as he chatted with three of their closest neighbors. "—don't believe in coincidences. Don't you think it's a little strange?" Mr. Montague asked; he was a man nearly as large as Jorun, but clean-shaven, bald, and more heavily muscled than plump. "How much have you been making off these 'accidents,' Jorun?"

"All that we're trying to say is that it looks just a little suspicious," Ms. Brooke, a tiny woman, said gently. "Almost every building in town has suffered the same damage, except the house of the local plumber, who of course is being called in and paid to repair the piping after every one of these incidents? It's the only reasonable conclusion, but perhaps we're wrong. Maybe you have some special kind of home maintenance regime that prevents this kind of deterioration, and you've simply failed to tell us?"

"I'm not the only one profiting off this mess," Jorun stated. "What about the home repair man, getting paid to rebuild all those walls?"

"That's true, Jorun, but his house suffered just yesterday. Your house is one of only two that haven't been affected," Mr. Brooke told him.

"And who owns the second house?"

"That new arrival, the one up on the hill," Mr. Brooke answered.

Jorun glanced over his shoulder, staring pointedly at Fil, and a surge of fear and anger burned like a flare inside Fil's chest. He didn't know what made him more furious—that his neighbors, who had known Jorun for almost two decades, were blaming his father for the accidents, or that his father was blaming Friend! "What about the damage to the trees in the forest?" Fil offered.

"Son, the adults are having an important conversation," Jorun snapped.

"It's like the bark's been scraped right off them, like a big cat's been using them as a scratching post!" Fil exclaimed. "Why would my dad do something like that?"

"Fil."

"To take the suspicion off himself," Mr. Montague replied. "Make it look more like a sick prank."

"Montague. You've known me for years. If I were so hard up for cash, I'd just put the boy to work," Jorun said, laughing quietly. Montague gave him a thin smile. "I'm starting to suspect the stranger up on the hill, personally."

"Dad!"

"How'd he benefit from this? Motive, Jorun," Mr. Montague said.

"Lord only knows. Some perverted pleasure, maybe. But when did the accidents start occurring? One or two days after he arrived, if I recall correct," Jorun told him. Fil slipped back into his room, face contorted with horror. He lingered at his door just long enough for Jorun to land the final blow. "I've met him. He's an oddball, that one. Can't speak, can't read or write. Spends almost all of his time alone. If I were going to peg this on anybody, it would be him."

No. No. Fil shut the door of his room and pulled on his shoes, feeling in his pocket for the dark stone. Friend was harmless. He'd never do anything like that. He had to admit… Papa had done a good job of making him look like a criminal… And the evidence seemed to point in Friend's direction… But Friend just didn't seem like the kind of person who would tear apart someone's home just for the fun of it. It took a really sick person to do something like that.

Fil had to warn him before the town started to suspect him. If they truly believed that Friend had cost each of them thousands of dollars in repairs just so he could fulfill some twisted desire, the best case scenario was that they'd have him arrested. That wasn't fair. Not when he was innocent.

He pried open his window and hopped out into the snow, making his way through the forest and up the hill. He passed dozens of trees whose bark had been sheared off by the unknown force, deep gouges cutting into the wood. Friend wouldn’t do something like that. Friend wasn't violent like that.

As he all but sprinted up the icy slope, he glanced down at the town, watching the Brookes and Mr. Montague turn away from Jorun's door and scatter out into the streets. To tell others what they'd heard, probably. He didn't have much time.

Fil panted as he rapped on Friend's door, his breath forming a thin white cloud in front of him. Painful seconds dragged by before Friend appeared, face bright with cheer, but his smile disappeared when he saw the anxiety on Fil's face. "Listen to me," Fil gasped. "You know what's been happening with those houses in town? Everybody started to blame my dad. But my dad tried to pin it on you. I'm sorry!" he exclaimed. Friend frowned at him, his eyes growing heavy and dull with sadness. "I—I tried to stop him, but… but my dad was the only other person they could blame, and I… He's—he's my dad." Fil looked at him, begging silently for absolution, and Friend rested his hand on Fil's shoulder. He was very warm. "I think they're going to come up here and try to pin this on you. But how are you supposed to defend yourself? You should—you should go away, hide, anything, but just let them cool off!"

Friend simply shook his head. "Why not?" Fil exclaimed. "I know it will look a little… suspicious… but what else can you do? Stick around and try to justify your innocence with a game of charades? You're like the perfect patsy!" He growled in frustration, and Friend walked out onto the porch and shut the door behind him. Smiling faintly, he reached into his pocket and withdrew another one of the darkly iridescent stones, placing it in Fil's gloved hand.

Fil heard the sound of angry chatter as the residents of the town began to mount the hill from the other side.

"Please, go," Fil told him. Friend shook his head once more, and Fil bit his lip, staring down at the ground. The snow was melting rapidly around Friend's feet, steaming as it touched his skin. He clutched the dark stone until it pained him.

Suddenly, Friend grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around, holding his throat with one hand and covering his eyes with the other. Fil cried out in shock and dropped the stone, struggling out of sheer reflex—but Friend was so strong that Fil would probably get himself strangled before he got himself free. He heard the noise of the townspeople increase exponentially, dark murmurs transforming into cries of fury. Friend didn't budge. "Why are you doing this? Let me go!" Fil cried. Friend's hands were so hot to the touch that it felt like his skin was burning.

The townspeople joined him in his terrified chorus, shouting, "Let him go! Let him go, you monster!" Even as Friend's fingers scorched his throat, the word "monster" made Fil's heart leap with indignation. Friend wasn't a monster; he wasn't.

His anger vanished as the burning sensation was replaced with a horrible shifting, like a snake crawling over his face. He froze, shivering, as the hands around his eyes and neck seemed to harden like cooling metal, turning as rough as steel wool. Women, and even some men, began to scream.

The hands released him and pushed him forward; Fil collapsed onto his knees and crawled away, his pants getting wet and muddy—the snow all around him had melted entirely, soaking the bare earth. He looked behind him.

His breath caught in his chest.

A monster.

It was a hideous, reptilian thing, basilisk-faced, a black lizard as large as a horse. Its hide was sheathed in mat of dull, grey scales that peeled in patches to reveal something dark and glittering beneath. Bat wings extended from its back, leathery and massive.

A single question reverberated in Fil's stunned brain: Where's Friend? Where's Friend?

The creature danced backward, shockingly nimble on its four thick legs, ice turning to water vapor wherever it stepped. It threw itself into the side of Friend's house, rubbing its flank against the wood, tearing the siding apart and destroying the plumbing that networked through the walls. Bits of the peeling grey scales broke off its side and tumbled to the earth, indistinguishable from dirty snow, and as they fell they revealed something black underneath that shimmered with a million different colors in the white light.

It pulled back and lingered for a moment, fixing its eyes onto Fil with a laser stare. Fil shuddered and flinched into a ball, shivering, feeling terror paralyze him. The creature's golden-brown eyes darkened as if sad.

And then he realized.

"You skipped over my house," Fil whispered. "You stayed just long enough so that they couldn't blame my dad for what happened." He swallowed, his lips twitching upward in a small smile. "Thank you."

Fil could barely tell. But it looked it smiled, too.

Then, with a flap of its wings, it took off into the air and soared away, growing smaller and smaller until it was no longer visible.


© Copyright 2017 SamanthaTaylorSmith93. All rights reserved.

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