As Ethan blinked his eyes awake, pale blue light illuminated the room, the usual sight he saw when getting up for school. Just as he was about to sit up, a ting of caution warned him otherwise. He turned his head to remember why; Lilli lay curled just beside his head still deep in sleep. With great care, he cupped his hand around the tiny girl to shield her from movement as he carefully rose up and out of bed. Lilli did not make a sound, thankfully. He crept over to his closet and pulled out the one suit he owned.
Today marked the anniversary of the one day of the year he needed to wear such an outfit.
He slipped the blue oxford collar shirt on before buttoning up the black blazer along with the matching pants. Once he knotted the black tie around his neck, he felt the same weight of the formal attire as he did the first time he put it on years ago. He inhaled through his nose to calm the pain of his heart thumping against his ribs.
"..than?" A tiny mumble broke his concentration. He swiveled around to find Lilli sitting upright. As he drew closer, she stared up at him through squinted eyes. "Where ya goin'?" She rubbed some of the sleep away from her eyes then reached a wobbling hand to him. He forced a smile as he took her hand between his thumb and forefinger.
"It's okay. I just need to leave for a little bit, but I will be back soon. Just sleep until then, all right?" he spoke soothingly. Lilli lazily nodded as she fell immediately back into slumber. He gave one more glance to see that Poppy remained quietly snoozing as well. Ethan then slipped his way out the door and gingerly strode down the stairs. He walked through the kitchen door to find his sister holding a steaming mug, still dressed in a pink, satin bathrobe.
"Ethan?" she asked with a shock, nearly spilling her drink, "what are you doing up so early?"
"I couldn't really wait," he replied with a shrug.
"Oh...okay. Well, let me just me drink my coffee and I will get ready as well."
"Yeah, take your time."
"Would you like me to make you something to eat or drink?"
"Actually, could I have some coffee too?"
"Really? You never drink coffee."
"I know, but I think I am going to need it today." With just a nod, Liza grabbed another mug from the cabinet and filled it to the brim. She handed it to Ethan, who grabbed it with both hands and merely took sips. His eyes remained locked on the empty floor before him.
Thin gray clouds littered the steely sky as the siblings drove to their destination. Ethan always noticed how green the grass turned whenever rain poured. Despite its gloomy appearance, it nourished all of the floras and gave it vivacity. It was because of this Ethan liked rainy days the most. Even on a day like today.
Suddenly, the car came to a halt. Ethan turned away to see the gated entrance decorated with an arc that read "Greenleaf Valley Memorial Park" in gold letters.
"Ready?" Liza asked, her forehead creased as she stared at her little brother. Ethan blew a puff of air.
"Yeah, let's go." They both stepped out and walked into the field. Gray headstones and plaques adorned it for as far as the eye could see. Flowers, fresh and old, rested next to several of the graves as tokens of remembrance. Soon enough, the brother and sister stopped before a plaque etched with two names:
In Memory of
Floyd Walker, Age 52
And his loving wife
Suzanne Walker, Age 50
"Hey Mom, hi Dad," Liza greeted the stone over Ethan's shoulder, "it's been another year." A warm breeze blew at that moment, wrapping Liza's black dress around her calves.
"Hope you guys are doing well," Ethan muttered, "we miss you every day." During the first period after their parent's death, Ethan remembered coming to the grave anytime he had the chance. He would sneak out of the house during the weekends while his sister was at work and be gone for hours since no one ever call. Even if they did, it was the usual condolences that would be better left on the answering machine. He lied to his friends, saying he had too much work or other plans to attend to, when honestly he simply sat in front of the plaque. He talked to them as if it were any other day, listing off everything happening at school, with friends, and within the house. But as time passed, his visits lessened as he found out life moves on even when all he wanted was to return to the days gone past. Even now, as Liza wrapped an arm around his shoulders, he barely felt it as he flew back to his memories.
"You guys would not believe what Ethan did last night," Liza began to boast, "this boy goes out while I'm still at work and does not come back until well into the night. When I came home to an empty house, I immediately knew something was up. I was so worried, and I seriously started thinking about going out and hunting him down or calling the police. But just then, he comes bursting through the door and begs me to save this strange little animal he found." Ethan turned his head up towards his sister, all concentration now on her words. "If you guys were here, I'm sure you would agree that this is the first time Ethan has ever taken a liking to anything." Liza's gaze shifted so her eyes met Ethan's and a warm smile spread across her face. "I know things have been hard for you ever since mom and dad passed away, but I really am happy that you found something to be so passionate about, even if only for the moment. I may not know why you were so indignant on that creature, but if it means so much to you, then I am glad you found it."
Ethan lowered his head as images of the previous night flooded his mind. As he remembered Poppy's injuries, Lilli's stories of her struggles in the forest and the tears she shed as a result of her agony slowly made their way into his thoughts as well. He knew the pain of losing parents at a young age, just as she never knew her own. Now she understood one of his aches.
He turned back to Liza with opened eyes. "I guess I just realized that if I have the power to help someone else, I should utilize that power while I still can. And that act of courtesy alone is enough of a reason to be alive."
Liza's smile grew into a grin as she reached up and ruffled Ethan's golden locks. "And you realized all of this just by helping that one little animal?"
Ethan shook his head as he pictured the tiny girl still curled up on his pillow and dreaming of days that would heal her scars. "No, I had a little help."
When Lilli's body decided that it could no longer stay asleep, she sluggishly rose from her position. A dull pain traveled up her spine. She rubbed her eyes open only to find Ethan's spot empty with the blankets still thrown aside. She vaguely held a fuzzy image of Ethan crouching over her and coaxing her back to sleep. This image must have been real as it immediately faded back into blackness. She wondered where he had gone and how long he would be away. As she laced her fingers through her hair, a twinge ran through her heart as her hand passed through its now shortened length. It was then she remembered the previous night and Poppy's injuries. She marched through the pillow as it swallowed her feet, grabbed the edge of the desk with a hop and clambered her way over the rim.
"Poppy? Are you awake?" she asked as she hustled across the top of the desk. The brown ball of fur stretched itself open as Lilli knelt down beside her. Lilli frowned at all of the bandages wrapped over Poppy's body. Somehow, it seemed the number of dressings multiplied over night.
"How are you feeling?" she asked as she scratched Poppy behind one of her ears. Poppy twisted back and forth as she inspected all of the bandages. She let out a growl as she stared at her paws with a scrunched nose. Suddenly, Poppy lowered her head and began to nibble at the wound underneath the gauze.
"No!" Lilli scolded as she swiped Poppy's paw from between the creature's teeth. Poppy shrank away with wide eyes and her ears tucked behind her head. "I'm sorry Poppy, I didn't mean to scare you. Just try not to remove the bandages. They really are meant to help." Lilli patted down the slightly torn edges of the gauze, thankful that the wound beneath did not show. Suddenly, a click resounded through the room. Lilli and Poppy sharply turned towards the door with tense muscles.
"I'm sorry sis, but I just wanted to keep her in here just in case she needed something," Ethan's voice seeped through the opening crack. As it grew wider, Ethan's hand poked through and waved from side to side as if batting away a fly. Lilli cocked her head at the gesture.
"Well I wish you had told me. Now let me go in and see how she is for a bit." A shock travelled up when she recognized the voice of Ethan's sister. She raced off the desk and dove underneath the pillow. As she flattened herself against the surface of the mattress, a pair of footsteps rocked stomped through the room.
"How are you doing, little one?" Liza asked, her voice sweet while not coming off condescendingly. Because of the thickness of the pillow, Lilli could not hear Poppy's response, but breathed a sigh of relief when Liza responded, "my, you all ready seem so full of energy."
"Guess she's pretty scrappy for such a little creature," Ethan commented.
"It's true. Though she needs to stay rested for at least a couple of weeks."
"Well, can I keep her in here? That way I can look after her all the time."
"All right, just let me know if you decide to move her again. Then I can stop you!"
Ethan laughed, "okay, okay, I get it. It will not happen again."
"Good. Well, I think I'm going to go take a nap. It's not every day that I get a day off."
"Yeah. Sleep well, sis." Lilli perked her ears as the click of high-heel shoes smacked the ground until the door sounded another click closed. She remained still for a few more seconds before crawling her way out on her belly. When she poked her head out, she glanced up to see Ethan spinning back and forth, his eyes tracing the floor of his room.
"Lilli?" he called in a hushed voice, "where are you?"
"Down here!" she yelled as she pulled her legs out from under the downy weight. Ethan spotted her and placed a hand over his chest.
"For a minute, I thought I had stepped on you," he remarked as he blew out a sigh.
"I've learned to take great care in not getting stomped on," Lilli retorted with a mischievous grin. Ethan scoffed as he sat on the bed. The sudden extra weight propelled Lilli a good distance off the top of the bed. Her stomach flew up into her throat during her second of flight before she crashed back into the soft ground.
"Oh God!" Ethan exclaimed, "I'm really sorry! I wasn't thinking at all! Are you okay?"
"Yeah, fine," Lilli replied hastily with more air in her voice than usual, "to be honest, I completely forgot about that too."
Ethan chuckled, "Only a couple days apart and we have to remember to be careful around each other." They both stared at each other with lop-sided smiles until both burst into laughter. Lilli rolled about on her back, while Ethan bent over his knees with both arms over his stomach. Still lying on the desk, Poppy stared at the two of them with her head tilted to one side. Eventually, their laughter subsided until they both let out a sigh of contentment.
"Say Lilli?" Ethan asked with his eyes glued to the wall on the opposite side.
"Can you come on a walk with me? Suddenly, my room feels so cramped and stuffy."
"Well, I..." Lilli's words trailed off as she turned her head towards the desk. Ethan looked down when she failed to respond only to smirk. He turned his attention to Poppy.
"You would not mind if I stole Lilli for a few minutes, would you Poppy?" Both Lilli and her animal friend whirled to Ethan. Poppy's ears flew up at the question. Ethan remained still as he waited for the response he knew Poppy could provide. Her eyes slowly lowered and her pupils reduced to normalcy as she gave a slight bow of the head.
Ethan's smile grew and he nodded at Lilli. "See? Poppy gives her approval."
"Really?" Lilli stretched her neck as if she could see high enough to locate Poppy. Her animal companion repeated the gesture along with a purr loud enough for Lilli to pick up. "Well...all right then."
"We will not be gone long, I promise. I just want to talk to Lilli for a little while." Lilli stared at Ethan from the corner of her eye, listing things Ethan might want to talk about. Before she could finish, Ethan placed his hand before her. She delicately stepped into the center of his palm. "I'll have to keep you in my pocket until we get there. Is that okay?" Lilli nodded, and immediately braced her footing as her platform rose closer to the human boy. He stopped just before the pocket on his blazer. Crouching down to hands and knees, Lilli threw one leg over the cloth then another. As she lowered herself down, she could not feel the bottom even when she stretched her toes. With no other choice, she fell to the bottom only to find a cushioned landing.
"Ready!" she yelled through cupped hands. And that was the last time either of them spoke before Ethan sat up and began to walk. Lilli grabbed fistfuls of the flimsy walls surrounding her in an attempt to stay steady, and prayed that it would not take long before they arrived to wherever Ethan was heading.
Lilli heard the cars zoom past once Ethan entered the center of town. She stiffened her body as the force of the vehicle blew her along with the pocket. A smoggy odor seeped in through the opening and she nearly choked as the stench invading her nostrils. Blurry figures of passing humans appeared in the pocket opening, and she instinctively kicked her way into the corner to put as much distance between her and them as possible. Still, she kept one fist clutched to the fabric. Within minutes, the sounds of cars and human feet on the pavement faded until she could barely hear the gale of humanity. She only began to unfold her body from its fetal position when Ethan's voice stood her hair on end.
"We're here," he announced, "I am going to take you out now, okay?"
Lilli nodded, then shook her head once she remembered where she was and yelled, "okay!" She held her breath as she awaited Ethan's hand. But when his log-like fingers poked through, she still jumped back. Recovering her composure, she crawled towards his hand until she sat on his curved palm. As he lifted her out, she threw her hands around his fingers. Sunlight blinded her once her head peeked out of the pouch, but once she blinked the stars from her eyes, she gaped at their destination.
A sea of grass greeted them, each long blade waving at her through the gentle evening breeze. On the horizon grew a forest, the tops of the trees reaching higher within the depths of the woods. The sun sank behind the blanket of woodland, bathing everything beneath the same color as its golden rays.
"Wow..." Lilli breathed.
"This is the best place to come and watch the sun set," Ethan explained, "and it's far enough out of town that the bustle will not distract you." Lilli glanced behind her to see the edge of town still within sight, though far enough that she did not fear being seen by any other humans. Suddenly, her platform shook she reached for the surface of Ethan's palm just before she fell.
"Oh, sorry," Ethan said with a concerned frown, "I didn't mean to scare you. I just wanted to sit down." Lilli tossed her head up to see Ethan now crouched down against a lone tree.
"We really need to get used to being around each other again," Lilli grumbled as she clambered back onto her feet.
"Here, why don't you stand here?" Ethan lowered his hand to his knee, which now stood bent with a wide enough surface for Lilli to perch on. She hopped over from his palm and stepped in circles across his knee.
"This is a lot sturdier than your hand," she commented with a smirk.
Ethan's hands absentmindedly picked at a nearby patch of clover. "By the way, does that forest look familiar?" he nodded his head toward the field, "that was the forest you were at not too long ago."
"What?" Lilli whirled around, the tips of her hair flaring before grazing her chin once more. She didn't recognize it, though the only time she ever saw the entire forest was from a high perspective. Lilli squinted through the darkness of the huddled trees; somewhere in that mass stood the mighty cedar tree that housed members of her kind. The same ones who locked her up like a criminal. The vision of the forest grew blurry in Lilli's eyes until she hurriedly wiped her face across her now ragged sleeve.
She sniffed away the oncoming force brewing inside her. "Why did you bring me here?"
"I have something important that I want to say to you." He waited until Lilli faced him before speaking again, "I know I all ready said this, but I am truly sorry about the things that I said to you that made you leave. And for what Colin said too. We shouldn't have belittled all of the hard work you've put into trying to find your kind. Especially since you lost your parents when you were young. I know how that feels, and I know you probably want them to come back like I do. I should have understood the pain of losing someone so dear to me." The two of them stood facing each other for a moment. Then Lilli turned back to the forest, sunlight radiating over her face.
"To be honest, at one point, I wished I could have a life more like a human's. You say that you understand the pain I felt when I lost my parents. That I can believe." Lilli turned back to Ethan, shadows crossing over her face as the light fell farther away. "But Ethan, you are a lot luckier than I am. You have pictures and movies and memories of your mom and dad to keep them close to you. I don't have anything, not even an image in my head. But what's more, until a few hours ago, I didn't even know whether or not someone else like me existed in the world." Lilli paused as she looked down at her hands, which now trembled with the rest of her body. Ethan opened his mouth to say something, but Lilli continued.
"There were nights where I couldn't go to sleep. I would have nightmares about whether or not I would ever actually find another member of my kind. Whenever I woke up, I would question myself: should I really keep going? What if I die without finding anything? Then it would not just be the end of my life, but the end of my entire species. But I kept going anyway. After all, what else was I going to do? My home was gone, and I had no where else to go. I had to have some reason to wake up every morning." As Lilli continued to speak, Ethan's focus drew more to her shivering body and the tears dripping from her eyes. She did not seem aware of either of these phenomena.
"Now, after I finally found a group of my people, I only feel like an intruder from the world of humans! So...where do I go from here? I can't go back to them, but how can I live in the human world? Please tell me what I am supposed to do, because I don't have a place to go to anywhere anymore!" Lilli's knees gave out and her body crumpled on Ethan's knee. Then she began to wail. She weeped like a lost child separated from her parents. Tears cascaded down her red-hot cheeks. Ethan struggled to find any words of comfort to save her from her tragedy, so he continued to watch over her with a troubled wrinkle creased into his brow. The only time he looked away was to stare at the single three-leaf clover he twirled in his fingers.
Eventually, Lilli's laments lessend to a sniveling case of hiccups as she buried her face into her hands. A sudden brush against her hair shuddered her gaze upward. Ethan's fingers lightly caressed the tips of her hair.
"Lilli, please do not think that you do not have a place in the world. I have always known just how amazing you are."
"W-what do you mean?" she asked in a tone stuffed from a runny nose.
"When I first met you, I had never seen anything like you in my life. I knew that no one else like you existed in the world." He paused to stare at the clover still in his hand. "You were like the four-leaf clover hidden in the patch; the one who stood out as being amazing because you were born to do so. I wish I could be so lucky, but when you're one part of a collection of seven billion, there isn't a lot you can do to stand out. I was born into a sea of insignificance. But you can be something amazing. You can stand out on your own as a great piece of this world. Whether you're alone or not doesn't matter. All that's important is that you are Lilli, the tiny girl with the most will to live." Ethan stopped for a moment. With just one finger, he wiped away the tears still sliding down one of her cheek. Lilli leaned into the warmth of his skin. She opened her still rippling eyes to look at the boy comforting her, the boy so desperately trying to find a reason for her to live when she could not find one on her own. Placing her hand on the opposite side of his finger, she pulled his finger closer and gave a smile as she said "thank you."
Ethan returned the gesture with a beam of his own. "It's the least I can do."
Lilli bit her lip before she said, "Can I ask a favor?"
"Since Poppy and I find ourselves homeless again, could we move back into your house?"
Ethan's eyes turned up as he gave the matter some thought. "Technically, you didn't move in with us the first time; you crashed our house." Lilli smile widened as she burst into giggles. Her laughter eased the last bit of tension still caught in her chest.
"Fine then," she responded once she straightened her voice, "then can I crash your house once again?"
"I guess there's no point in trying to stop you," Ethan said with an exaggerated sigh.
"Good. Let's head home then. I want to check and see how Poppy is doing." Ethan flipped his palm over for Lilli, and she quickly sprang onto it. He stood and just as he was about to hold her to the entrance to his pocket, a thought flashed through her mind. "Ethan!"
He pulled her back up into his viewpoint. "What is it?"
She waved her hand towards her own body, edging him closer. Ethan's eyes shifted side to side a little before he raised her closer to his face. Still her hand waved, and soon she was close enough that there was barely any distance between her and the tip of Ethan's nose.
"Uhh, Lilli?" he asked in a hushed tone. The breath of his words warmed Lilli to the bone as she stood. Without a word, she stretched out onto her toes and planted a kiss upon Ethan's cheek. Her touch caused Ethan's hand to twitch, pushing Lilli onto her backside. When she looked up through her dangling strands of hair, she could not miss the red glare painting Ethan's face. Weaving her fingers through her hair, she grinned and said "I always wanted to try that."