by Kaiyaki Senka (貝焼千菓)
It’s not obvious, at first, what he was left for.
‘…Came into my ship trailing blood all over the deck and jumped overboard with a zombie bastard in his arms!’
The sailor has a hard face on a soft body.
Lenka has never heard the tale spoken aloud before, let alone shouted on a public bus.
You met my father. He listens politely, never saying a word, and a boy in uniform raises his voice.
‘Please be quiet, sir. This is a public area and you are disturbing the peace.’
It shouldn’t be a threat, not from a child so young.
‘Hi,’ says Lenka, and smiles at the boy.
‘Hi,’ says the boy, who has sandy blond hair flowing in gentle waves over his scalp.
Lenka looks into the boy’s blue eyes and sees himself reflected in them, all long dark hair and large dark eyes.
They get off at the same stop, and walk in through the same gate. The school stands white and heavy in front of them.
‘You too? You must be new.’
Lenka had rescued a girl once, said hello by the street and escorted her a little way before he went home. Her face rises to his mind.
She turns back and sees him there still, half-hidden by the shadow of the closed door, and something creases over her face like wonder.
The boy nods in understanding.
‘You changed schools. To see her?’
It should have been harder to find her, but he had recognised his own passion in her, albeit burning in a different direction. He followed the dark red trail of her hopeless kindness to the sweets shop with painted jellybeans on white wallpaper. The waiting children clung to him, warm and sticky, and he handed out sweets while she found her way home home with a tiny infant, head half-crushed but still alive.
She did not look at him, and he had turned his head away, but he had decided to stay anyway.
She would be waiting for him when he returned home to the shop with its too-clean walls and sticky mess of misshapen children.
The boy is waiting expectantly for his answer.
‘Yes,’ he says finally, injecting a shyness in his voice he hopes will be mistaken for love.
‘I bet she’s pretty,’ said the boy, grinning. He isn’t wrong, but Lenka has never wanted any of the girls he meets. They always have hearts of steel and visions of peace that he does not want any part in, no matter how much he loves them.
It is the boys who drive Lenka crazy, boys like this boy here, with shining eyes and hair so light it almost hides the darkness within their ribs. Boys like this one make his heart bleed while he falls apart in the midst of stifled cries and darkness.
They part ways at the entrance to an empty classroom. Lenka turns, hand caressing the door handle.
‘So I’ll see you at lunch then…’
‘Adlai.’ The boy flashes a quick smile and runs off.
Lenka lingers in the doorway, wondering at his own stupidity. The boy is friendly. Lenka knows it is easy to be friendly, but only to people you want something from. What could this boy possibly want from him? And Lenka had been friendly too. At first he had thought…but what would such a boy know about his father?
It’s not obvious at first.
Adlai wears a special uniform, brown with badges. He patrols the courtyard by leaning against the wire fence, testing the mesh and scribbling on his special sheet that yes, he has checked every building for bombs and terrorists and suspicious activity.
‘It’s stupid,’ he says to Lenka, shaking his head ruefully in a way that makes Lenka’s knees shudder and fold. ‘Paranoia from the higher-ups, that’s all. What sort of crazy would want to bomb a school? It would be a lot more efficient to go for the Square.’
Not the sort of behaviour Lenka has come to expect from the boys he meets, though it is true that until now they have never been quite so young.
‘Be careful,’ he says to the boy, who looks straight back at him.
‘So you moved to be close to your girlfriend, right?’
Lenka stares at the change of topic.
‘Where’s she now? We should visit.’ The tone is mischievous, but Lenka has heard the question before, along with all the suspicion it contains, and the lie slips easily from his lips before he remembers who he is talking to.
Adlai knows the schools; the badges on his uniform are proof of that. What’s left of the girls’ schools do not finish so early, especially not the ones near this area. Lenka’s excuse is flimsy at best, and the boy is not wearing a uniform for nothing. His eyes narrow, and yet he stays calm.
‘You be careful too.’
Silence stretches out between them. Lenka locks his fingers into the links of the fence and pulls gently.
They would know about him by now, from the sailor on the bus. Recognition comes slowly, but with a bit of encouragement, the sailor would remember. He was the type to be a squealer.
Adlai’s hand sweeps in front of Lenka’s face, brushing dark hair back into place.
‘I’ve been assigned duty tonight, but we should meet up, maybe tomorrow? It’s been a while since I’ve met anyone new.’
The boy is talkative; assertive, not stupid. It is not something Lenka is used to seeing. The boys he meets are never stupid, but friendliness is not common either, and he is far more accustomed to sombre eyes staring at him wordlessly in darkness with a mixture of fear and desire.
‘Tomorrow?’ He lets his voice slip into disapproval. It is too far from today; he will not be around tomorrow.
‘Will you be taking the bus home?’ The boy’s face reveals nothing of the hidden motives Lenka knows should be there. Once again, he wonders if he has made a mistake. A brown uniform does not always equal usefulness, and his loyalty will always be to his father.
What do you know?
‘I thought you had duty?’
Adlai slaps a hand to his forehead.
‘Of course!’ He seems at an immediate loss for words. They stand, awkward or waiting, Adlai’s hand still curved against his forehead as if checking for a fever.
Lenka reaches forward before he can stop himself.
The bell rings. Yet Adlai doesn’t tear away like the others have done before him. Lenka can feel bumps of bone under the skin of Adlai’s wrist, the back of the blonde boy’s hand smooth against his fingertips. Adlai turns his hand to face Lenka’s and intertwines their fingers, letting their hands fall between them. He runs his thumb over Lenka’s and draws back almost reluctantly, words falling from his lips like water.
‘We’re looking for the man the sailor was talking about. He did something really dangerous, which I suppose you know about, seeing as he’s a wanted ex-prisoner and all that. He left something behind when he escaped and it could cause a lot of damage. We want to know what it is and why he left it behind.’ Adlai grins suddenly, like a blow to Lenka’s chest. ‘Of course, we want to know where it is, too.’
The boy is rambling, and the yard is too open; the smattering of other students have already been redistributed into sterile classrooms. This is nothing Lenka has not heard before.
‘We should go.’
Adlai’s grin softens into a smile and Lenka feels the neat alignment of their interlaced fingers like fire against his skin. He knows it is an unnecessary gesture, but he allows Adlai to lead him back to his classroom. The warmth of Adlai’s hand soothes the pain of chilling memories, even after they part.
The last boy had been a man already, and far too suspicious. Lenka had learnt nothing from him, and still lost the girl he had saved. He remembers watching her run and knowing she would not get away, even though she was an unknown and Lenka was the one they wanted.
Take me, take me instead– But he had already been taken, brutally, and the man was greedy.
Lenka’s father had been an unknown once: a position many people had held back then, a position too easy to lose now. Lenka himself was not born into that world.
‘You have been asleep, and now you are twelve,’ his father had said when Lenka was born, the only words he has ever spoken to his son.
He sees his father sometimes, but only from a distance. His father follows him, though Lenka does not know why. Once he had thought his father was protecting him, but his father does not seem to love him, and Lenka knows that people do not protect people they do not love.
School ends. Adlai goes for duty, but not before reaching for Lenka’s wrist and whispering into his ear.
‘Don’t tell anyone or you’ll get me skinned alive, but the man we are looking for is here and he’s carrying a crystal; you wouldn’t know about it. I’ll tell you about it afterwards, I promise. We think he’s finally come to collect what he left behind.’
Lenka expects to feel relief that he was correct. The boy knows things. But Lenka only feels sick. History is always repeating itself, and for some reason, Lenka does not want this to happen with Adlai. It is a stupid, stupid hope, but Lenka almost sees the future as it could be: Adlai warm and safe by his side, their fingers falling carelessly into each other. But–
We think he’s finally come to collect what he left behind.
Lenka knows about the crystal. His father carries it to save himself in case Lenka betrays him someday. Learning that had taken a wiry red-haired boy in brown and the loss of the sweetest girl he’d ever saved, but Lenka does not regret anything.
He misses the bus and walks into the Square instead. As usual, there is a long line of people scattered in front of the silver monument; a ladder stretched up to form a podium where a dark-haired man calls out with a voice as soft and devastating as the wind.
‘Now, now, now.’
Each word is punctuated by a loud bang. Lenka flinches every time.
As a young mother in a dark red dress steps forward, white hand clutched whiter against her baby’s arm, he jerks savagely at his bicycle chain. It’s an unnecessary risk, to make such a loud noise so close to the man when they could recognise him at any second, when the line is so long and the man is obviously in the worst kind of mood.
The sound is masked by the thud of the woman’s body hitting the ground and the crack of the child’s head. The chain loosens and slithers from his hand.
The whole line, then, today. The girl will not need to leave the house tonight.
He swings onto his bike and rides out with his face down, just like all the others trying to stay unknown.
The girl meets him at the door, a dark-skinned child peeping from behind her knee.
‘How many today?’ she asks, looking out at the world behind him. He never tells her, but she yanks at the small child’s tangled curls with a comb as ferociously as if he had said the truth.
‘This world is–‘
‘I don’t want to hear it.’
She does not look at him. He remembers when she had looked back after he had saved her, but the features of her face are nothing but blurs of color now. It is time to leave.
He will not see her tomorrow, but he wishes her all the best. She will have to be quick if she is to survive.
‘Pack up,’ he orders. The children gather with sweet smiles around him and he feels his stomach lurch.
Adlai is different, he thinks, in a moment of irrational hope. The boy knows things, he recalls, and his hope splinters into a thousand shards of despair.
There is a knock on the door and they all freeze. The girl looks at him, accusing and fearful, and all he can think is, I won’t forget her face again.
He sees the night unfold and tries to smile as he opens the door.
Adlai looks shocked, as if he had been expecting someone else.
Lenka raises his hands and smiles ruefully.
‘No, I really am that stupid.’
Conflicting emotions run over the boy’s face.
She is hurrying the children out; Lenka turns to her and motions with his chin. She follows them. He can hear her swallowed sobs as she splashes through mud.
The boy is still standing, transfixed. A man like the last one wouldn’t have let the girl go.
‘Did you befriend me on purpose?’
Lenka bows his head to the demand, though he doesn’t know why. All he knows is that he wants to know: why he had been woken; what his father had done; why his father watches him and why he never speaks.
Curiosity is as fatal as rebellion in this society.
Adlai is looking at him, and Lenka is again surprised by the lack of reserve the boy shows. Adlai is trembling, his voice hoarse. Lenka feels dizzy all of a sudden, stumbling where he stands. He doesn’t miss the fleeting flash of concern on Adlai’s face, and perhaps that is what gives him courage to reply.
‘I didn’t think you were who I was looking for, though, in the beginning. I wasn’t planning on following you.’ It is a confession. ‘I don’t know why I followed you.’
Adlai’s eyes flicker like melting ice.
‘You weren’t helping her, were you?’
‘Of course not.’
She wants revenge, justice, freedom. He could see it in her face when he met her; knew it by the whiteness of her clenched fists as she stood in the rain over a body washed pale in the bloodstained Square.
He had led her away and found her a home, and smiled when she began to bring in the children.
He had never wanted to take down the government himself. She had called him cowardly, but he looks at Adlai and thinks, this is our future.
It is a terrible future, perhaps, but Adlai almost makes him believe it might not be as bad as he knows it will be.
They have stayed too long.
‘Don’t you want to know the truth about your duty?’
But the boy shakes his head, seizes Lenka’s arm, and strides out. Lenka lets it happen.
Then he curses his own good-natured acceptance and angles himself imperceptibly towards the figure rounding the corner to the house. He knows his father has seen, because he spins on his heel and begins to run.
For a second, Lenka believes that maybe Adlai will let his father go. None of the other girls escaped their houses without a bullet at their backs, after all.
The boy must have seen the look on his face, because Lenka’s father crumples, dark red seeping from a perfect ‘o’ just below the bones of his right shoulder.
He expects no movement from his father; they will be out of sight before his father decides things are safe. He’s not expecting the boy to shoot again, though, another bullet straight through the right shoulder, not that it will make any difference.
Adlai is a soldier after all.
They find Lenka’s bike, propped up against the wall, and he holds Adlai while the boy vomits, gun fallen to the ground.
It would be easy to take it and run, like he has done so many times before. He has seen many girls before, many rebels, many children being led to from their dead mothers in the Square to the safety of a house with whitewashed walls and sugared sweets, and he had escaped from the men he meets so many times before. It would be so easy.
He rubs his thumb in gentle circles against Adlai’s back and tells him the truth.
‘He won’t be there when you get back, you know.’
Adlai shudders under his fingers, blonde hair falling across his face.
‘He will. I killed him.’
Of course. They all do.
‘You don’t know.’
‘I killed him.’
‘You can’t.’ And there it is, seven years of secrecy out in the open at last. The truth about his father as he knows it, and the burning question driving his whole life onwards: what had his father done to gain immortality?
Lenka is not expecting the boy to rise up at clutch at him. Adlai seizes his hands and brings them to the brown shirt, pulling the buttons apart and shrugging it off his shoulders. In the center of his exposed chest is the boy’s own crystal secret.
‘I killed him.’
It is not too late to run. Lenka has escaped even through the clutching of sharp nails and the hot scars of rope.
But this, here, splayed across the chest of a boy not even older than himself, is a crystal almost exactly the same as his father’s, save for the many jagged cuts across the surface, pulsing black then white in a way Lenka has only seen once before, when he first awoke to the dark signs of a world gone mad. Lenka’s father had only two scars; one disappeared when he woke Lenka. Lenka has a scar himself, across his heart – it appeared the first time he killed a boy – but he has no crystal.
He had thought there was only one in the world.
‘I can kill anyone,’ says Adlai, and shoots himself.
Lenka screams despite himself, fascinated by the sight of Adlai’s crumpling to the ground and rising again. The scar disappears for one second and reappears, no longer pulsing.
‘I promised I’d tell you about the crystal,’ says Adlai, ‘but you probably know most of it.’
Lenka nods, burning under the shame of Adlai’s cold gaze.
‘What you’re just figuring out,’ says Adlai, ‘is why my father wants yours dead.’
And Lenka understands everything.
The killings in the square; the sound of the man saying ‘now, now’. His father’s immortality; his father’s immorality in gaining that, and the subsequent attempt at atonement after the world went to Hell. A life for a life.
‘There are two crystals,’ he says dumbly.
‘One for your family. One for mine.’
‘The right to the crystal runs in the family.’
‘First the father–‘
‘Then the son.’
‘A life for a life,’ says Adlai. ‘You know how it works; you can take someone else’s life and make it your own to lose again. But suicide is not the same as murder. If you kill yourself, you gain a scar. If you die, you lose one. As long as I’m prepared to die, I can never die.’
‘Your father does not have a crystal,’ says Lenka.
‘Neither do you,’ Adlai replies, ‘but you still have a scar, don’t you? The President is covered in scars.’
‘The President,’ says Lenka. Your father.
‘He wanted mine,’ says Adlai, ‘but they can’t kill me. If your father had been prepared for my second shot, he would still be alive, and I would have trusted him to take care of his own.’
Lenka feels dizzy. His father is gone, so quickly, after so long. It seems strange to have reached the end so fast, but not quite sad.
He has never put this much importance on his own existence.
He steps closer, sees the warmth of his breath fan over the boy’s face, ruffling the blonde hair, and is not afraid.
‘The crystal is mine until you kill me.’
Adlai nods, looking terrified. Lenka doesn’t like that expression. He smiles.
‘It’s okay. I won’t fight you for it. I trust you.’
‘I didn’t know it would be you.’
‘Nobody ever expected me,’ he says.
Those who know nothing think of secret weapons, and crystal keys to secrets which will bring about the destruction of empires. Nobody ever expects the immortal man’s hope to be something human, so desperately fragile and prone to shattering.
Lenka understands. He is his father’s son at heart. A life where he must always be ready to die is not the life he wants. He wants a life that can protect Adlai’s.
People do not protect people they do not love.
There will still be lollies, shops open until the early hours of morning. Children clinging to a girl not old enough to be their mother. Boys in love and trapped in schools too small to keep them still. It is not obvious at first, this world turned on its head in the space of a decade.
Lenka sees the future play out in his mind. He will not live to see the downfall of his world by the hands of a man with blond hair and blue eyes darkened by grief.
He walks to his bicycle, still leaning against the wall, and braces himself.
The closer Adlai comes, the shallower Lenka’s breaths become. Lenka’s eyes dart between the blue of Adlai’s eyes and the pulsing light of the crystal. The boy presses the gun against Lenka’s chest like a caress. Their eyes meet, and for a moment Lenka thinks the boy must have pulled the trigger already, because his chest hurts like hell and all the air seems to have drained from his lungs.
He can blame the lack of oxygen for what he does next.
Adlai shocks at the feel of Lenka’s lips on his, but his hand reaches up to tousle in Lenka’s dark hair and his eyes close without hesitation. His tongue sweeps over Lenka’s, coaxing a moan out of him.
It starts to rain. Lenka tries to ignore it at first, catching the drops on Adlai’s face with his tongue, but eventually they are both dripping and Adlai is shivering, and Lenka admits that yes, they should probably go inside. He leaves Adlai’s shirt lying outside and slams the door behind them.
He’s barely adjusted to the light inside when he’s being shoved against the wall and stripped of his shirt. He wonders vaguely what Adlai thinks of the jellybean wallpaper before Adlai kisses him again and he writhes at the sudden rush of heat that spreads from their mouths to his hands and his groin and his toes.
He reaches around to bring Adlai closer. The crystal in Adlai’s chest is cold and Lenka squirms away from it. Adlai laughs against Lenka’s mouth and then he does something insane with his tongue and Lenka forgets about the crystal and everything it means. Adlai makes him feel alive, and it’s ironic because every gasp of air between kisses is a countdown to his death.
‘Stop thinking when I’m trying to feel you up.’
Adlai nips his ear as punishment and Lenka can’t even laugh because Adlai’s just pushed against him and they’re both hard. They’re both hard and now Lenka’s sliding to the floor and pulling Adlai with him and they’re kissing again. Lenka hopes they’ll never stop kissing because kissing Adlai feels better than kissing any of the other boys, who wouldn’t even fuck him while they could still see his face.
Not Adlai. Adlai bows his head to Lenka’s heart and drags his tongue across the scar there. Adlai’s hands roam over Lenka’s body like water, never stopping. Adlai tells him I love you and kisses him before he can draw breath to reply. Adlai hasn’t even touched him yet and Lenka is already almost there, hips jerking up as if to reassure him that Adlai is still just as wanting as he is.
‘Adlai, come on, you’re going to kill me!’
Adlai freezes. Lenka waits for his mind to catch up with his mouth and then sighs, lips quirking up in a wry smile.
‘Well,’ he says, pushing down Adlai’s trousers and trying not to stutter at the sight of his cock, ‘if I had to pick one way to die…’
Adlai shudders under his hands and Lenka wraps his mouth around the other boy’s cock. It’s big but not too wide, and Lenka’s had worse. Adlai goes very still when Lenka begins to go deeper, sliding up and down until Adlai clenches his shoulder with a cry of frustration and begins to thrust slowly into Lenka’s mouth.
It’s like he’s trying not to hurt him; Lenka’s grateful, but he wants this, and damn it, his gag reflex is not going to ruin this for him. Adlai calls out his name in broken syllables and Lenka swallows unconsciously, tongue pushing against Adlai’s cock. Adlai yelps and groans, and Lenka reaches down between his own legs, pulling himself off in hard strokes as Adlai spirals out of control.
He wakes up, half hard, to Adlai’s face in his lap.
‘We can’t keep on doing this forever,’ he says. ‘Not that I wouldn’t like to, but–‘
Adlai laughs, and the vibrations from that make Lenka look much more willing to go for round two.
‘Just one more time.’
He falls back and lets Adlai lead him to mindlessness on the floor of the deserted sweets shop, and even though he knows they can’t avoid the issue forever, he can almost forget he knows anything at all except the feel of Adlai’s hands and Adlai’s mouth and Adlai’s eyes as he looks up at says I love you again, and this time Lenka says it back.