It takes me several minutes before I can stop crying. Ryder is sitting in silence, never letting me go or loosening his hold on me. I have always hated crying, but it never once feels awkward to be balling my eyes out in front of him. He doesn’t make me feel judged or weak for my actions, he simply waits. I’ve never felt more comfortable anywhere than I do right now in his arms. Not even lying in my bed at home.
“Why do you want to stay there?” Ryder asks suddenly. He doesn’t let go of me but speaks just above a whisper. He sounds confused.
“What do you mean?” I question. I know he means Geha, but I don’t understand why he’s asking me that in the first place. I’ve never thought about it. Didn’t think there was even a choice to leave.
“Why would you want to return to such a horrible place?” He clarifies, his voice never waving or speaking above a murmur. “Especially now that you know there’s a place outside it that isn’t so restrictive. It doesn’t make you happy, so why go back knowing that there are so many other opportunities beyond the walls of that prison? You have the freedom to be who you are, and do what you want out here – no pressure from Rites or tradition.”
“It’s not about being happy,” I explain. Or try to. I’m fumbling over my words, not sure how to tell him why it’s necessary I return. It’s more than a simple feeling of obligation or tradition that keeps me going back, but even I can’t put it into words. “It’s not even about tradition, it’s about the greater good and being able to advance everything we have.”
Even as I say it, I don’t feel a connection to the words. There’s no sincerity or conviction to my tone.
“We all have a responsibility to continue the design that Geha started,” I continue, but I know in my heart that the words are empty and meaningless. “Everything he set up for us with our ancestors when they first arrived on this planet.”
I’m pick myself up and stand before Ryder has the chance to respond. Since he kind of makes sense, I don’t want to give him the satisfaction. I can’t let on that I’m actually considering what he said. Even though it pains me to admit it, I have to go back to Geha. It’s super tempting to stay here with him, but there’s no way. I’m disappointed but I have to go back. There’s no use sitting around daydreaming when it’ll only keep me wallowing in sadness. I’m much more inclined to distract myself than focus on things I can’t achieve.
“Enough chatter,” I sniffle, wiping the wetness from my cheeks. “Take me to see my brother right now, please.”
“Alright,” he sighs, resigned to his defeat and dropping the subject.
He gets up from the dirt, standing more than a head taller than me. Dusting himself off, he trots toward Landow. Actually trots, as if he’s a stallion on parade. I could probably find the way back on my own, but I feel better with Ryder leading the way. Safer. Even if he is infuriating, it’s better to have someone with me that I know will assist me if anyone questions my motives. Only take risks if necessary. Having him around is better than the odds otherwise at this point. Plus, he would just follow me anyway, like a puppy after being reprimanded. Well, what I imagine would happen. No domesticated animals in Geha. Which is a shame because I think I would have liked a pet.
The walk to the village is quiet, and I’m grateful. I don’t feel like becoming more confused about the world I grew up in. It’s already a shadow over my heart and mind that refuses to clear no matter how hard I try to put a positive spin on things. Instead of enjoying the wonders of nature on the way, I focus on the journey. The path we take. It helps keep the doubt creeping into my heart at bay. Enjoying the beautiful trees and such will only make the doubt pump faster through my veins.
Ryder is at my side as we travel, keeping at least two feet between us. He glances at me out of the corner of his eye every few minutes, judging my mood. I make sure to keep my gaze straight ahead with an annoyed expression so he doesn’t talk to me. It works. Every time he does it, he rubs the back of his neck anxiously with his right hand and let’s out a sigh. This repeats every few minutes like clockwork. By the time we reach the village, he really is starting to annoy me with his nervous antics.
With the sun just above us, the main section of the village is bustling with people, young and old, looking for lunch. I’m able to lose myself among the crowd, weaving in and out trying to blend in with the locals – Ryder not far behind me. Every once in a while there’s someone in the group around us that calls out his name and a greeting, and I hear him reply accordingly, making it seem like he’s merely going back to his hut rather than following me back to the place my brother has been living the past six years.
The closer we get, the more my anxiety builds. I do my best to keep myself from lashing out at the villagers and pushing them out of my way. The people fade and my agitation with them as we continue onward. Only my anxiety is left. I’m so distracted by my own wonder that I’m genuinely surprised when Ryder stops me to let me know we’ve arrived.
I turn and face the wooden door, not sure I can face what’s on the other side. Stepping up to it, I rise my right hand to knock but freeze. My pulse races and I can hear my heart pounding inside my ears. Unanswered questions that have crossed my mind over the years flood back into the forefront of my head, keeping my hand inches from the door. What if I don’t recognize him? What if he doesn’t recognize me? Would we still get along like we did when we were younger, or would he not even remember being my best friend?
There’s a crunching of dirt behind me and I see Ryder leaning towards the door in my peripherals. I wonder for a moment what he’s up to, whether he’s going to try and comfort me, but I don’t have time to voice my concerns. With my arm still raised, he knocks on the door for me with three loud bangs against it. I lower my hand and turn to him, angry.
“What was that for?” I hiss, glaring at him.
“I could tell you were going to chicken out,” he teases, that irritating half grin painted on his face. I want to smack him across the face to wipe that grin off. “So, I thought I would do it for you.”
I had a really nice retort but I’m unable to speak. The door opens and there’s a man, six inches taller than me, staring at me from the threshold with an expression of disbelief plastered on his features. Micah stands before me. He looks similar to what he did when we were younger, but he has wrinkles on his face that weren’t there before. His face and body is worn from the years of physical labor. He’s not wearing a shirt, but there is a pair of mahogany overalls covering his body. The skin I can see is patched with dirt. Even his hair is ruffled and has bits of dirt here and there. I want to say something and break up the awkward silence, but I fail. Instead, we stand gawking at each other.
A minute goes by before Ryder coughs in an attempt to break the tension. My entire body flinches from the shock the noise causes, but Micah doesn’t move. His eyes dart quickly from Ryder back to me, his eyes glazing over to hide his emotions; a flicker of aggression passing through his stare before vanishing completely. When his gaze comes back to me, I don’t even recognize him anymore. It’s really off-putting and makes my nerves skyrocket. He never even got agitated when we were little, so to see him that upset reminds me that I have no idea who this person is standing in front of me.
“Would you like to come in?” Micah asks, feigning the Geha manners he learned so many years ago. His left leg steps back, his body turning so I have just enough room to scoot beside him and inside the darkened hut.
“Only if Ryder can come, too,” I say, anxiously.
The words spew out before I can stop them. I take my own step back, grabbing onto Ryder’s hand and squeezing tightly. He doesn’t pull away, just gently presses his fingers into my hand to let me know he’s not going to let anything happen to me. A hint of hurt and surprise flash over Micah’s eyes before it’s gone again. It’s so quick that I may have imagined it in the first place. Still, he obliges, stepping further to the side to give room for both Ryder and I to pass by him.
“Of course,” Micah nods.
I will my feet to move but they don’t. Ryder seems to understand and takes the lead into the hut, his grip never relaxing. He pulls lightly on my hand and my feet are able to detach from the ground. The tension between the boys when Ryder passes Micah is electric. My brother is watching Ryder carefully as he ushers me inside.
As soon as I pass Micah, he shuts the door behind us. It takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but when I do I see that there are candles scattered throughout the front room giving off a delicate glow everywhere the flames flicker. Everything on the inside is made out of the same wood that created the walls. A small table that seats two is to my left and behind Micah, an ancient tin pot sitting on top, and there’s a tiny crackling fireplace built within the wall next to it. A small couch that, also, seats two is against the right-hand wall with handmade cushions on top, and several hand carved and handcrafted storage spaces sit along the wall beyond the dining table and burning fire pit. Near the back of the room there is a doorway leading to, what I assume is, one or two bedrooms. It’s very archaic, and absolutely nothing close to the furniture and designs of the houses in Geha. Although different, the hut still has a homey, cozy feel to it.
Ryder leads me over to the small couch while I take in the layout of the tiny hut. He sits on the side farthest away from the front door and gently pulls me in front of the seat to his left. I take the hint and sit next to him, looking over the room a second time in case I missed anything the first. There’s nothing amiss with my original recount, but I can see a bit into the hallway where a closed door stands. I’m a little disappointed I can’t see inside, but this isn’t the time to be curious. Not with my long-lost brother mere feet from me. It’s strange to think that my brother has been living like this while I’ve been pampered by comparison. It makes me wonder how long it took him to get used to this lifestyle.
Micah grabs the table and places it closer to the couch, careful so the tin pitcher doesn’t slide so much it falls off. He takes a tin teapot from out of a storage container furthest away from Ryder and me, and pours water from the pitcher into the teapot before hanging it over the fire pit to boil. I tear my hand awkwardly away from Ryder’s, realizing I hadn’t let go yet. It occurs to me that it looks like Ryder and I are a couple, when I barely know him. I’m not even close to ready to have that kind of conversation with Micah. I’m still trying to process the fact that he is alive and well, standing right in front of me, let alone bring up intimate questions like love interests and what have you.
My brother goes back to the storage bin where he found the teapot and takes out three dented and well-used tin cups, placing them on the table. Micah sits down on the chair farthest from me, and closest to the door, biting the dirt-caked fingernails on his left hand. When did he develop a habit like that? He is almost ignoring Ryder and me. As if he’s home alone after a long day of work, and relaxing for the evening. Instead, it’s a little passed noon and he has company he doesn’t seem to be ready to face. I’m still not sure that I am either, but we’re both here now and there’s no going back.
“So,” I start, rubbing my anxious palms on my thighs. Micah’s gaze falls on me when I speak, but he doesn’t stop chewing on his nails. I try to keep a positive tone to my voice so the fear stays hidden. My stammering deceives me. “You look different. Taller.”
“Yeah, I guess,” he chuckles, lowering his hand to his lap, where he begins to pick at his cuticles instead. “You grew up a lot, too. I almost didn’t recognize you when I opened the door for you. Six years is a long time…”
He trails off, eyes glazing over momentarily. A memory of when we were younger must have crossed his mind. I’m sure that’s how I look every time it happens to me. It only takes him a few minutes to pull himself out. I’m about to say something in response, but he shakes his head like he’s trying to clear the dirt from his scalp and looks at me again. There’s a somberness to his eyes now that I recognize. I’ve felt it for years.
“If Ryder hadn’t been there,” Micah continues, “I would have assumed you weren’t related to me at all.”
“You still look like you,” I reply. “Just older. More worn.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” he shrugs, running a hand through his hair. Dust jumps off his head and floats down to the floor. “I was practically an adult when I was sent here.”
“And this is where you’ve been this whole time?” I can’t help but ask. My voice quivers a little at the end, and I have to hold back tears. Of joy, frustration, relief, and disbelief.
“Yes,” he confirms. “After the Loyals dropped me off at the Boilers, I stood at the gate screaming that it was a mistake. That I wasn’t supposed to be there. None of the Unfavorable working that day even looked in my direction or acknowledged my existence. Not until I started crying like a baby.”
“You cried?” I queried. Tears bubble in my eyes that I have to choke back. Hearing his story brings back every emotion I have ever experienced since he left. Ryder adjusts himself uneasily, reminding me he’s still there.
“I did. Only one man showed me kindness that day. His name is Aukai. He’s the elder of the village now, coincidentally, but back then he was just another working Unfavorable like the rest of us. Aukai took me under his wing and taught me how to survive outside the walls. I don’t think I would be alive if he hadn’t helped me.”
The teapot over the fireplace begins to whistle, startling all three of us. The air around us is so electrified from our anxiety that even Ryder is feeling it now. I’m so immersed in Micah’s story that I forgot he had started tea. Apparently, he did as well.
Micah stands, grabs an old towel from one of the storage containers and uses it to take the teapot away from the fire. Almost immediately, the whistling quiets down. He pours hot water into each of the cups before setting it on the table. He tosses the small towel back into the container and brings out some handmade teabags, placing one in each of our mugs. As he retakes his seat, he changes the subject.
“What about you, Al,” he questions. His tone is lighter, as if purposefully trying to change the topic so we stop talking about him. “What has your life been like within the walls without me?”
“Lonely,” I admit. “I wondered what happened to you for years. All the Loyals told us when you vanished was they had taken you to a different area in town that would better help you with schooling. The thought gave me hope for about a year that you might come back, but when it went onto three years with no word and no sight of you, I began to wonder what really happened to you. It’s haunted me. Mom and dad haven’t touched your room.”
I leave out the fact that our parents seem to have stopped caring about his absence with my Rite score. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to bring that up just yet.
“The rest of my life,” I continue, “you’ve lived yourself. The pressure of school and doing well on the Rite… I don’t like talking about it. Tell me more about what you’ve been doing all these years. Please?”
Micah opens his mouth to argue, but stops when he sees me pleading. I’m still so angry with our parents that I’m not sure I could hold back the fact they’ve almost forgotten he ever existed because of my Rite. I don’t want to ruin the reunion by bringing up something that might upset him.
“Okay,” he concedes. “Uhmm… Aukai took me in and helped me build this hut from the ground up. He gave me food the first few days so I wouldn’t starve, then got me work as a Drudge to earn my keep. I thought that it was going to be terrible living outside Geha without the technology and luxuries inside the walls, but it’s quite the opposite. I’ve looked up to Aukai ever since we first met, and I strive to be like him someday. I don’t think I want to have the responsibilities of an Elder, but I want to be the type of man he is. He helps people without thinking of how it could benefit himself.”
“Thanks to him,” Micah continues, “I’ve thrived here, outside the walls. More than I ever thought possible. The village accepts me as one of their own, I’ve started a school here for kids to learn to read and write, and I have my own garden out back. I use it to grow my own food, but give it to others who can’t afford it. Kids who have lost their parents, or the elderly who can’t work anymore. And there’s so much more I want to do for the village. After all they have done for me. How much Aukai has done for me. Aukai was the father figure I needed when I had no one else to support me.”
My blood begins to boil. Mom and dad may not be showing much affection towards him, but that doesn’t make it okay for him to say that. As if he didn’t have a father before he was taken out of Geha. Logically, I know that his reaction to being abandoned outside the walls and having to practically fend for himself would give him this attitude. Logically, it makes complete sense why he would feel this way. However, with all the overwhelming new information I’ve received since finishing my Rite has finally caught up with me. He can’t abdicate them. That’s not how a family is supposed to be. If it’s so easy for everyone to let go of blood, then what does that mean for me? Who in this world would still love me if I hadn’t scored so well on my Bleeding Rite? Does any of this really matter, then?
“You have a father,” I hiss between clenched teeth.
“What?” Micah questions, confused. He had been lost in thought remembering the ‘good old days’ with this Aukai character. I interrupted his reverie with my spite.
“You have a father,” I repeat, louder. Some of what I say is a lie, and I know that. Still, I can’t stop the words from spewing out. My tone crescendos to a yell by the end of my lengthy speech. “A father who has been worried sick about you for six years now. Our parents believed you were dead when you didn’t come back home, but still kept hoping to see you walk back through the front door to end our sorrow. They have been grieving the loss of their oldest child, only son, for the past six years. I waited every day for years for a letter or message from you to let me know that you were okay. I thought you were dead.”
My voice cracks. I reign in my emotions enough to hold back tears. My eyes are staring down at the dirt in front of my feet, and can’t speak above a whisper.
“If the roles had been switched, and I had gone in your stead,” I continue, my speech wavering with every syllable. “I would have found a way to get word back to my family that remained, and at least let them know I was alive.”
Redirecting my gaze, I decide to stare right into my brother’s pale green eyes. He’s taken aback by my outburst. His mouth hangs open but words don’t form. His bottom lip quivers in an attempt to force sound, but only silence remains. A pregnant pause is all that we share. He’s not my brother anymore, and I’m ashamed I thought he could be. No more than two minutes go by before my frustration overtakes me. If he has nothing to say for himself, then there’s no reason for me to stick around for him and wait. I’ve done enough waiting. Too many years wasted thinking about someone who doesn’t share my tribulations.
Using my anger, I launch myself up and off the couch, headed straight outside. The door swings easily open in my wake. The afternoon air is humid, causing sweat to drip all over my body as I stomp away from the damned hut. A gentle breeze is the only comfort I have in this filthy, subpar world.