Karen could be so maddening, particularly when you knew she was only pretending to listen. Sure, tall in stature and the eldest among us at fourteen, she was the obvious choice for leader. No one contested that. She didn’t need to strut around like a peacock to remind me of my place. She wasn’t that much older than me.
“You said you wanted to work top-side so I gave you a job top-side,” she said, not bothering to make eye contact. Supposedly, she was hard at work checking the number of sacks in the grain room against the chart in her arms, though I was pretty sure she was doing it to look important, and busy.
“I didn’t ask to work top-side,” I argued in exasperation, “I warned you that there was a gigantic spider living in the tunnels underneath us and that we should probably move out of here!”
“Keep it down,” she snapped, glancing toward the open door. For good measure she crossed past me and closed it. “I have enough map-makers,” she said, turning back to me. “I don’t have enough berry-pickers, though. The berries are important. We don’t know how much longer they’ll be ripe up there. And as my mother always says, ‘a berry lasts a day, but add some sugar and you have jelly all year.’”
“That’s… great,” I grumbled. “It’s just, I was wrong about Tuktatuk.”
“The giant spider you were so concerned about fleeing from a few weeks ago?” she challenged.
“Yes,” I admitted. “I owe him an apology.”
I’d been fine with the idea of having a friend down there while I was mapping the lower tunnels of our borrowed home, while he was just a voice in the shadows, but the moment I learned what he was I’d fled. Now that I’d had time to calm down I’d realized that it wasn’t my brightest moment.
“You leave Tuktatuk to me,” Karen said, resuming her count.
The tone of her voice suggested finality and I felt like heaving one of the grain sacks at her. She could be so maddening when she put on that superior tone.
“No, you listen,” she interrupted. “Tuktatuk is none of your business anymore. I’m handling delicate negotiations with him at the moment, and I don’t need you bungling it.”
“I wouldn’t…” I sputtered, but she silenced me with a gaze.
“I’ll pass on your hello and whatever pleasantries you wish to convey,” she said cooly, “but the answer is no. You’re a berry-picker now and that’s final. Is that understood?”
I wrestled with several cutting remarks until “yes,” escaped my lips and I left before I said or did something that could get me kicked out of this place for good. As frustrating as she could be, Karen was keeping roughly two hundred children from dissolving into chaos and/or being eaten by the surprising number of creatures in the forest above interested in our downfall. If she hadn’t taken me in after the city of Azminan fell I’d have been snatched up long ago by myir, or chlotka, or even some of the creepy villages outside the safety zones. We’d seen disturbing things as we’d passed through on our flight north. Karen was in charge because we all needed her to be. Still, she didn’t have to sound like such a, such a…. wannabe-grownup!
“You’re going the wrong way,” drawled Karen’s sidekick of late, a kid who’d been unabashedly hovering outside the door and now followed me toward the tunnel that led to lower passages.
“Mind your own business,” I grumbled, but he continued to follow.
“Demin, right?” I said at last, spinning on him. “Let me give you a piece of advice, Demin,” I spat. “Try thinking for yourself. Stop being Karen’s obedient little lap-dog.”
Demin laughed, undaunted. “Now, see,” he said, “I was thinking of helping you out. Tuktatuk said you’re a good storyteller.”
“What?” I gasped. “You’ve talked to him?”
Demin shrugged and turned back the way we’d come.
“When did you talk to him?” I demanded.
I’d been back to the room where I’d met with Tuktatuk before and talked into the darkness for hours, but if Tuktatuk was there, he didn’t let me know. Tuktatuk had offered friendship to me and I’d let him down. It wasn’t who I was. That bothered me more than anything else. It hadn’t been only Tuktatuk who I’d disappointed; it was me, too. I’d never been so clear on my need to set things right – to apologize and try again at our friendship, sure, but to recover the person I wanted to think I still was, as well. I didn’t want to consider the alternative; turning into the person I’d be if I let this go. The solution was clear. I needed to get back to map-making. I’d tell stories to the dark rooms I charted until my face turned blue if that was what it took.
“Demin,” I said, trying to use a friendlier tone and trotting to catch up to him. “Please. When did you talk to him?”
“Nope,” said Demin, “I don’t think I like how you talked to me. You’re on your own.”
“Where is he?” I pled. “I can’t leave things like this.”
Demin slowed and I could see that he was softening. We were close to the grain room again and I noticed that when he spoke, his voice was hushed. “I can’t tell you that,” he said, “besides, where isn’t important. But I will say this.” He glanced around until he was satisfied that we wouldn’t be overheard. “He agreed to deal only with Karen,” he said quietly, “but that took a lot of doing. He’s been protecting us all this time, and he was ready to blaze. Vamoose. Skedaddle. Leave us on our own.”
I closed my eyes in shame. “That’s my fault,” I admitted.
“Oh, we know,” nodded Demin. “The thing is, I think he misses you. He couldn’t stop going on about the stories you used to tell him. You ask me, that’s how you’ll be able to get him to talk to you again.”
He turned and continued up the passage toward the grain room.
“Wait. What?” I scoffed. “What does that even mean? Demin, where is he?”
“Listening,” he called over his shoulder as he pulled open the door to the grain room. “I suggest you try it.”
That kid had some nerve! I stormed away, in no direction in particular, and managed to spend the afternoon more or less stomping the inhabited length of our catacombs spreading irritability. When Demin entered the great hall that evening for supper I felt like lobbing one of the mushy potatoes swimming in my stew at him.
“What’s that look about?” asked my friend Alana, sliding onto the bench beside me and eyeing her stew with trepidation.
“Demin,” I grumbled, and she laughed.
“He has a knack,” she agreed. “I’ll trade you green lumps for orange ones,” she added, eyeing my mostly full bowl.
I slid it over to her and she set to work on the exchange.
“Am I not a good listener?” I complained. “When you say things to me, do you feel like I’m brushing you off, or misunderstanding?”
Alana’s smile spread. “He really got to you,” she mused.
“Obviously I listened to him, to be this mad.”
“Who are we mad at?” asked our friend Josh, joining us with Abe and Sunny, two other kids we used to run with when we lived in Azminan.
“Demin,” answered Alana, sliding my bowl back under my nose. I wished she hadn’t and leaned away from the questionable aroma. “He accused her of not listening,” Alana added.
“That’s rich,” snorted Josh.
“What was he telling you to do that you supposedly weren’t listening to?” offered Sunny.
“Tell stories,” I grumbled past a mouthful of potato lumps.
My friends traded an expression of confusion.
“Why wouldn’t you want to tell your stories?” frowned Alana.
“We like your stories,” added Josh.
“That’s not it,” I argued, “it’s…” but what was it? I wanted to get Tuktatuk to listen to me again. Why wouldn’t I tell him stories? He’d said once that he had very good hearing.
“I…” What if it wasn’t important where I was when I told the stories? Below ground, above ground, what if Tuktatuk could hear me either way? Had Demin been trying to tell me how to get around Karen? I caught sight of Demin at the other end of the hall. Sitting in close vicinity to Karen, as usual, he had a ring of kids around him, laughing on each other’s shoulders as he waved his arms over his head in the throes of some tale. I wondered if Tuktatuk was laughing, too, somewhere below.
“I think he was right,” I said at last.
“Come again?” asked Josh.
“Demin was right,” I said. “I wasn’t listening. How can I be a good storyteller if I don’t listen?”
My friends exchanged another glance of bewilderment.
“Have I told you guys the ice garden story yet?” I asked with an enticing smile
With anticipation, my friends leaned in close to listen.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!