We raced through the field, our bodies overflowing with boundless energy. The twilight turned Tondra's dark brown hair golden, the same color as the grass, and her face shone in the light of the twin suns. We danced in between the tall leaves of grass in a game that only we knew of. The wind carried away both our laughter and our worries. That is, until I remembered what I had told my mama: twenty minutes. I was only supposed to have been gone for twenty minutes. But twenty minutes had turned into an hour, which had turned into three, and I hadn't even been to the pharmacy to get her medicine yet. Abandoning our secret game, I turned and ran back to the forest on the other side of the field. Tondra's shining smile disappeared.
"Where are you going?" she asked, puzzled. "We haven't reached the village yet," she called to me as I made my way back to the forest. I ignored her calls, though. I was worried about my mama. The doctor had told her that she should stay with relatives or a friend, but mama had neither. We only had each other. Mama and I never stayed one place for long. She said that our people had lived as nomads for as long as anyone can remember, and she didn't see why we shouldn't. She had once told someone that it was a lonely life, but I never felt lonely. We always had each other, and that was enough for me.
But she had been sick lately. She tried to hide her face from me when she coughed, but I saw the blood on the tissues in the trash and I saw the bags that always seemed to be under her eyes. I noticed how gaunt she looked and the yellow tinge to the whites of her eyes. She wouldn't tell me what was wrong with her, but I had overheard the doctor say something about her liver. Could a person live without their liver? I didn't know, and I didn't want to find out any time soon.
When I reached the cabin, she was in the same place she had been in when I left. She was asleep in a large, overstuffed arm chair, a book in her lap and her reading glasses still perched on the end of her nose. I sneaked across the tiny living room, trying my best to be stealthy. Despite my efforts, as soon as I reached the base of the stairs, her eyes flew open.
"Did you get my medicine?" she asked, her gravelly voice devoid of even a hint of nervousness. Hadn't she been worried about me? I'd certainly been worried her.
"No," I said meekly, wanting to disappear. Surely she would yell at me. She always yelled at me when I did something stupid. But she just slumped down in the chair. She looked tired, even more tired than usual.
"Dammit, Nathan," she said, her voice heavy. "Did you at least get me a pack of smokes?"
"Mama, the doctor told you to stop," I reminded her at the risk of being reprimanded.
"I know Nate, but it's hard. It's so very hard. It's driving me crazy." She released a long, weary sigh before clicking off the lamp next to the chair and standing up. Her legs were weak and unsteady, but she managed to make it over to where I was standing.
"Come on, kiddo, let's get you tucked in."
"But it's not even dark out," I said, glancing out at the golden twilight pouring through the treetops.
"I know, babe, but mama needs her rest, and she can't get it with you running around."
Once I was settled in my bed, mama told me a story. She said it was ancient, older than the singing statues that stood in the fields of our home country so far away. It was the same story that she always told me, the story of Santwarju tal-Allat, the Sanctum of the Gods. She said that it was the most amazing place in the world, almost too amazing to even be comprehended by humans. She said that it was an unimaginable city nestled deep in the sacred mountains and all but impossible to reach. She said that the buildings were covered in lapis and that the streets were paved with marble. She said that there had once been people living there; beautiful, winged people who never fought amongst each other and were always content with their lives. But not anymore. She said that there was only one of the winged people left, a young girl with wings as white as snow. According to the story, she is the last one who knows the way to tal-Allat, as it is called.
"My grandmother told me this story when I was a young girl," mama said, her eyes growing distant with nostalgia. "She spent her life searching for that girl. I tried to, but then I met your father, and then I had you. I suppose the gods had a different path laid out for me. But sometimes I wonder what would've happened if things had been different..." she looked back at me and ran her fingers through my hair. She looked sad, like she was about to cry, but there were no tears in her eyes. She got up from the bed and turned off the light in my room. "Goodnight, Nate," she said, closing the door behind her silently.
"Nighty-night, mama," I said, even though she couldn't hear me.
I woke to the smell of smoke. My first thought was that mama had gone out and bought a pack of smokes for herself, but then I remembered that she could barely stand up, let alone drive a car. I got out of bed, rubbing my groggy eyes. As soon as I placed my hand on the door knob, the door flew open, banging my nose. My mother rushed in, sweeping me up in her arms with a surprising amount of strength. Smoke billowed through the open door, but mama made no effort to close it. The black cloud flooded my lungs and I coughed, choking on the foul gas.
"Mama, what's happening?" I said, alarmed.
"We're going to meet the gods, Nathan."
Just then, flames burst through the open doorway with a force so strong that it knocked mama over. She landed on top of me, knocking the breath out of my lungs. I gasped for air, but the only thing available was thick, black smoke. Mama wasn't moving. I wiggled out from underneath her and put my arms under her armpits. I tried to drag her across the floor to the window, but she was too heavy. I was able to make it halfway across the room before my arms wouldn't obey my commands anymore. I sat down heavily, panting. The fire had spread to the room, igniting the wooden rafters. It reminded me of the burning twilight sky.
I struggled to my feet and tried to move mama again, but it was no use. I had no strength left. The fire had devoured half of the room, and it licked hungrily at mama's feet. Blisters welled up on her skin and her clothes burst into flame. She woke up then, her face twisted in agony and a silent scream escaping her lips. She reached out for me, but I backed away, horrified. A rafter fell, sending a myraid of scorching hot sparks flying throughout the room. I gasped and took another step back. I placed my hand on the wall and quickly withdrew it in pain. I had touched the window, and the glass was blisteringly hot. Suddenly, a large crack appeared in one of the panes. More cracks appeared as the glass splintered. Finally, it shattered, embedding shards of glass in my unprotected flesh.
Without thinking, I leaped out of the window, catching onto a tree branch. I hung on for dear life, my already exhausted muscles screaming in protest. I inched along the branch, ignoring the sharp splinters of wood digging into my hands. When I made it to the trunk, I settled down in the crook of the tree, my back resting against a large branch. The autumn air felt freezing against my blistered skin and I could only now feel the tears on my face and the blood that was oozing from my nose. Once I had gotten my breath back, I climbed down the tree and landed on the ground. I had heard on T.V. that you needed to call the fire department when there was a fire, but there were no phones around.
I left the forest, my legs aching. I made my way across the field, which was now bathed in the cool light of a harvest moon. I could see the lights of the town at the far end of the field. I wasn't sure if there was a fire department there, but I had to try. My mother was counting on me. So I forced myself to cross the field, which seemed so much easier when I was running freely across it, my veins full of adrenaline and one of the only friends I had ever known at my side. When I reached the town, I grabbed the nearest person I could find.
"What do you want, kid?" the woman snapped. She was young, much younger than mama, and very pretty, but she didn't seem very nice.
"Please," I said, my lungs aching. "There was a fire in the cabin in the woods. My mama's still in there." I watched as the woman's eyes widened. She whipped out her cell phone and dialed 911. She told the operator where the fire had been before grabbing my hand.
"Come on, kid, we have to get you to the hospital." She took me to a small walk-in clinic were I was led into a small room that smelled strongly of antiseptic. A doctor came in and laid me down on a bed. He took my vital signs before giving me an IV and some water.
"Is my mama gonna be okay?" I asked. I was growing more anxious by the minute. Why wasn't she here? Hadn't they rescued her yet?
"I won't know until I have a look at her," the doctor said, he soothing Indian accent not helping to calm me down one bit. I shivered, even though the room was uncomfortably warm. My head ached and my lungs were on fire. The doctor had bandaged hands, and my body was speckled with Ace bandages were the glass had stabbed me. I hurt all over and there was a hard knot in my stomach that just kept growing.
It seemed like an eternity before the doctor returned. He unhooked the IV from my arm and led me out of my room and into another identical one. My mother was there, laying motionlessly on the hospital bed. Her entire body was covered in bandages, and her blackened clothes lay in a heap next to the bed.
"Is she all right?" I asked, my voice sounding small, scared, and strangely raspy.
"We won't know until we run our tests," the doctor said in his smooth Indian voice.
"You have to do them soon."
"Actually, we're planning on transporting you two to the hospital in Nova Jorko. You can stay the night there."
Two hours passed before the ambulance arrived and two more passed before we arrived at the hospital in Nova Jorko. It was a vast city, larger than anything I had ever seen. The sheer size of the massive sky scrapers made my head dizzy with vertigo. Mama was rushed into the critical care wing of the hospital, while I was put in a room by myself. There was a television, but I didn't feel like watching. All I felt was a horrible sickness. I still hurt all over, and I was unimaginably tired. But even though I was completely exhausted, I couldn't sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Mama reaching out for me, desperate for something to hold onto.
I didn't sleep at all that night, and when the sun finally rose, I hardly even noticed. I probably would've stayed in bed the whole day if a nurse hadn't come. She was old; her wispy white hair was tied back in a neat bun and her wrinkled face was angular and sever.
"Come with me," she said. It wasn't a question, so I obeyed and followed her to a small conference room. It was furnished only with a large meeting table and several chairs. I sat down in one of the hard, plastic things and waited for a couple of minutes before two men in finely pressed suits came in, locking the door behind them. One of the placed a paper cup in front of me. I took a large gulp in an attempt to soothe my burning throat, and gagged. The liquid was coffee, black, and it was burning hot. But I didn't care. I took another gulp, and I didn't stop drinking until it was all gone. The two men exchanged a glance before one of them put a small plastic baggie on the table.
"Hello there young man," said the younger of the two. "Do you know why we're here?" he asked, his voice calm, smooth, and slightly patronizing. I shook my head no. "You're name's Nathan, right?" I nodded. "Would you prefer if we called you Nate?"
"Nathan's fine," I said briskly. I wanted them to cut to the chase, but my mama taught me to never be rude.
"Alright, Nathan it is then. How old are you, Nathan?"
"Ten and a half," I said.
"Hmm...I see," said the older man. He pushed the baggie towards me. Inside was a cigarette lighter, the same lighter that mama had used. It had a picture of a beautiful woman wearing a blindfold and holding a scale on it, but the picture had been scorched by the fire. That was her star sign, Libra. She had always been fascinated in the stars. "Can you tell us anything about this?" the younger man asked.
"It's my mother's," I told them. "She used to smoke, but she stopped because the doctor told her to. Why? Is it important?"
"We believe that it was the cause of the fire. We can tell that it's been recently struck," the younger man said, putting the bag back into his brief case. "Was your mother suicidal, Nathan?" The question felt like a knife stab to my stomach. Mama hadn't been the happiest woman on Earth. She often told other grown-ups that she was lonely, and that she was tired of moving around all the time. She would go to bars and come back with smeared lipstick and long lines of mascara running down her face. But she loved me. She told me that she loved me every night. I knew she wouldn't leave me.
"Of course not," I snapped, feeling my face grow hot with anger at the mere suggestion. "Why are you asking me this?" The two men exchanged glances again. They remained silent for a long while.
"Nathan," the younger man said. "I'm not sure how to tell you this, but...your mother passed away this morning. All of the fear and anxiety that had been building up last night now came back ten fold. It was as if a dam inside me had burst open and all of my most horrible emotions came pouring out. I managed to hold them back, though. I wouldn't let them see how upset I was. I'm not sure how, but I retained my composure.
"Do you have any relatives you can stay with, Nathan?" the older man asked. I shook my head. Everything seemed unreal now. I begged the gods to let me wake up from this horrible dream.
"We'll talk more about this later," the younger man said, shooting his partner a frosty glance. "Why don't you just get some rest. You must be exhausted." I returned to my room feeling impossibly small and lonely. Mama had told me about death before. She said that when someone dies, they come back as something else. It could be a bird or a wolf, or, if you were lucky, another person. But she said that part of your old self remained. She said that that small part lived forever in heaven with its ancestors, and that it always watches the ones it loves. It looks out for them, and does its best to protect them. I wondered if she was watching me right now, and I wondered what she had become. Was my mother a little bald squirrel baby, crying for its own mama?
When I got back to my room, I tried to go to sleep again, but I couldn't. As soon as my head hit the pillow, tears welled up in my eyes. She had also told me that when she died, I would feel lonely. She said that even though it felt unbearable, that it would pass. She wanted me to be strong, and strong people didn't cry. But I couldn't help it. I already felt lonely. I felt a black pit open in my stomach where the hard knot of anxiety had been the night before. I laid in my bed sobbing quietly to myself until I fell asleep.