We shared a bunk bed, with improvised mattresses made of twigs. They were lumpy, fur-poking affairs, but enough to doze off on. My little brother, Dak, always got the top because he thought it was cool to be floating up in the air. He would tell me with a sincerity only found in youth that he would awake from a dream and believe he was flying. The real reason was that he was scared of someone breaking in, as if I could fend off the bad guys at ground level.
Everyone knew each other on our block; I don’t know why he expected some random burglar to smash in the door and kidnap us. Nevertheless, he admitted to a sense of comfort whenever a sliver of candlelight shone through the bottom of our bedroom door. Darkness usually provoked a sleepless night for Dak in which he’d ask me if I was awake every twenty[AE1] [BK2] minutes; ‘twas the life of a big brother. I would try to pretend I was asleep and couldn’t hear him, but the boy was relentless. I always broke down and answered him….[AE3]
Tonight, Dak slept curled up in a tight ball of golden fur on the corner of his mattress. He snored[AE4] gently, already deep into his dreams. Aside from his white robe, he resembled a sun bear in hibernation. Slumber was finally mine for the taking. A cool breeze blew through the window, just enough to remind us that winter was coming and that I had outgrown this tiny quilt. I stretched the fraying threads with all four paws in an attempt to fully cover my two-foot frame,[AE5] then snapped to my opposite side to look at the shifting door handle.
Momma’s white nightgown brushed against the wood floor as she tiptoed into our room, her nails clacking with each step. She scooched onto the edge of my bed, with her paws dangling off the side. Not as soft as your waterbed, I thought with a sarcastic smile before propping myself up against my headboard. She slept on a feat of Chigidy engineering, a mattress stitched with nasturtium leaves and butterfly wings, filled with saltwater. Dak and I didn’t try to hide our jealousy, but Momma needed it for her aching back. I braced for the lecture that I knew was coming since today’s incident.
My gaze swept everywhere but on Momma. I examined the poster that adorned the wall by my bed of Chigidies hang gliding through the Mountains. They each had shiny golden fur, white silk [AE6] robes, and flying goggles over their blue eyes. I had never gone hang gliding, but it was a popular hobby for affluent Chigidies in the Wetlands. The thrill of soaring through the air held a certain appeal over me. Across the bedroom, which was only about two more feet, stood my dresser, covered in marble kits, a dirty robe, and a few random pictures of our family.
Momma stood back up and reached for a small frame with a headshot of my father in his work uniform, pulling my attention back to her. She plopped back down at the foot of my bed and stared at the picture, holding it tenderly.
“You’re old enough to know now, Beeker,” she said softly. His life remained a mystery to me. I always wondered but didn’t know how to ask. “Your dad would have been proud of you today. He always believed in standing up for yourself.”
Maybe I’m [AE7] not getting a lecture. The pangs of anxiety disappeared.
“This is the last picture I have of him. He was twenty-five years old. Poppa was a member of Unios, a proud wearer of a red robe.”
I sat up in disbelief at Momma’s words. The rhetoric amongst my relatives always suggested a disdain for the overentitled red robes, versus us independent white robes. She just blurted it out, like it was nothing. I guess I had never noticed from the black-and-white photo.
“Your father loved the Chigidies he worked with, but after ten years on the job, he grew tired of slaving away deep below Anoroc’s surface. It wasn’t the work but the loss of self, the confines of Unios. I always asked[AE8] your dad not to rock the boat. But”—she sighed—[AE9] “he was not one to live life as a pawn. ‘Painite lasts forever, life does not,’ he was fond of saying.”
My eyes went wide. I felt like I wanted to change the rest of what Momma might say.
“We all told him what he already knew, that you don’t switch robes. But your father…[AE10] " Momma’s blue eyes fluttered like a mockingbird with sadness[AE11] . “Such adversity only emboldened his stance. I pleaded for him to think rationally, to think about us, about you,[AE12] and Dak in my belly, about the future. It was useless. Ignoring all warnings, Poppa mailed a note to the chief requesting his dismissal. I knew once that letter was mailed, our lives would change forever.”
She reached her paw to my cheek. I turned my face away, hoping she couldn’t read my emotions in the darkness.
“Then one night, the wind was howling against the hut. We were all asleep, and there was a loud knock on the front door,” Momma spoke without sentiment, as her eyes stayed locked on his photo. “I woke up, staring at the ceiling while your father continued to snore. I kept telling myself it was just the wind knocking something over. But I knew…that was it.”
Her paws tightened on the frame so much that the glass began to splinter in the corner. I leaned closer, wishing I could comfort my mother; her sadness hurt me.
“I remember staring at your father as he slept so peacefully. His breathing carried the same rhythmic tune as Dak right now. His fur pressed against my cheeks as I attempted to get my body closer than possible to his, clinging to the moment like it was the last of our lives. The Chigidies at the door knocked again, and louder, but still not rousing Poppa. I couldn’t bear to wake him.”
I stared at the ends of Momma’s long white sleeves, covering her paws in her lap. I couldn’t bear to raise my eyes to hers, let alone add some word of acknowledgment to the conversation. I didn’t want to hear any more, but as much as I tried to distance myself, my mind focused on every painful word.
“Finally, I shook his shoulders and had to wake him. I looked into his eyes, begging them to comfort me as they always had. He blinked and met me with the same smile I’d adored every sunrise. I looked back at him with tears in my eyes; that would be the last smile of his I’d ever see.”
I felt numb. What started as despair and pity for our loss turned into anger, anger at my father for not listening and taking some stupid stand because of work. Then I thought about who could possibly have done this to him, to me, to our family.
“Every moment is an ending, each with a new beginning,” she said under her breath.
I looked up at her, not sure if that message was meant for me.
“Beeker.” She placed her paw on mine, knowing there were no words to untangle my emotions. “Tomorrow, you have to go.”