Island of Silence (Unwanteds) (14 page)

Only Meghan stayed seated, looking from her brother to her best friend
back to her brother again. Wearily she buried her face in her hands as the place erupted
into arguments and accusations about who was right, and what should be done.

Alex, in heated but respectful debate with someone two rows in front of
him, glanced up at the stage to see Mr. Today watching him. Alex stopped mid-sentence,
feeling badly about starting the argument and ruining Mr. Today’s speech, but the old
mage nodded at Alex and clasped his hands together. Alex thought he might even look a
bit proud.

A surge of electricity rushed through Alex’s blood, and he felt anew the
absolute thrill of being saved by Mr. Today and Artimé, the challenge and luck of being
alive’a feeling he hadn’t felt since before his brother had nearly killed him. He smiled
at Mr. Today, for the first time feeling less like student and teacher, and more like
friends.

Almost as if they understood each other without needing words.

 

Sleepless Again

henever Alex couldn’t sleep he took to wandering the mansion. Sometimes in the dark of the night he saw Samheed, who had a similar sleep problem. Tonight was one of those nights. They left their rooms almost simultaneously, Samheed firing off a snide comment to his blackboard, Stuart, as he closed his door, and Alex responding “I won’t” to Clive’s “Don’t die” reminder. The two met up and walked together without a need to speak.

Like they had done in the past, both turned right when they hit the balcony, and right again to walk down the mostly secret hallway. It had become habit to check out the blackboards in Mr. Today’s office every now and then. As they passed the door that led to the Museum of Large, Alex glanced at it, longing to go in again and explore.

Samheed noticed the look. “What’s in there, anyway?” he asked. “Have you ever been in there? I tried the door once, but it’s locked.”

Alex just shrugged, not wanting to lie, and not knowing if he could tell Samheed the truth.

The glass wall was never in place anymore, but Alex was always cautious, sticking his foot out to make sure.

Samheed laughed softly. “I ran into that thing once too, you know. If you throw a scatterclip or an origami dragon down the hall, you can tell if it’s up without having to inch along like that.”

Alex sniffed. “I don’t like to waste my components.”

“Suit yourself. You look like a dork, though.”

They entered Mr. Today’s office and pulled chairs up to the blackboards, watching not much of anything in the dark. Alex knew that Mr. Today wouldn’t mind them sitting in here watching. Not now. Not anymore. It was much less scary not having to worry about Mr. Today discovering them, Alex had to admit.

“I liked what you said at the assembly,” Samheed said after a while. “I think you were right. What the heck happened to make Sean Ranger even ask that question? That didn’t seem like him.”

“I thought that was weird too, but he’s been acting strange lately. Did you see him take off out of the theater after the meeting? He went straight for the gate and into Quill,” Alex said as the blackboard focused on Aaron’s old room. A new boy was there now, but Alex couldn’t make out any features in the dark. “I think he and Meghan got gutted hard when they went to see their parents. Meg has seemed really preoccupied ever since they did that.”

“Huh,” Samheed said. “Meg told me once that when Sean was first Unwanted, her mother wandered around for a couple of years with a vacant look on her face, like she was having trouble getting over Sean. But she didn’t have that same look for Meghan when she and Sean went back home to see them.”

“Yeowch,” Alex said. “She told me they seemed glad to see Sean. But her . . . not so much.”

“That’s pretty brutal. And a little too familiar.”

Alex gave Samheed a sidelong look in the glow of the blackboards and the soft night lighting of the office. “Did your mother ever come back?”

“No. And I’m glad. I hope she . . . I hope she never does.”

“Would you talk to her?”

“No.” Samheed ripped his fingers through his hair. “I don’t know. Maybe. Would you talk to your parents?”

Alex thought for a long moment. “Yes. But my parents won’t come. They’ll be on Aaron’s side forever. He told me he never wanted to see them again, but that won’t matter to my parents. They are Necessaries who want to be Wanteds. They’ll starve to death before they come to our side. That’s just the way they are.”

They sat for a moment in silence.

“Hey, who’s the new guy in Aaron’s room?” Samheed asked.

“I dunno.”

“Maybe Mr. Today is focusing on a different Wanted now. Spooky.”

Alex sat up and leaned forward. “Do you think so?”

“No, not really. It’s the same angle as before, and yeah, look,” he said, pointing at the knots of wood in their familiar places. “It’s the same door. I think we both have that dumb door memorized.”

Alex laughed. “Yes. I bet Mr. Today still has my 3-D drawing. It would be funny to go in and scare the new kid.”

Samheed smiled evilly. But then he turned back to the blackboards. He wasn’t about to be the bad guy again. “I wonder where Aaron is. Do you know?”

“No.” Alex jiggled his foot. “And I don’t like not knowing. It makes me nervous.”

“I know. Me too.”

They watched a moment more, seeing only a few unidentifiable people walking along the road. Alex squinted, trying to see if one was Aaron, but he couldn’t be sure. A couple passed by, but all Alex could detect was an older woman with a young man of average height. It looked like Sean Ranger’s profile’and was that his mother? He peered closer, but soon they walked out of sight. Alex sighed.

Samheed drummed the arm of his chair with his fingers. He stood up. “There’s nothing happening. I’m going to get food.”

“Yeah.” Alex got to his feet too and followed Samheed out. The two wandered back to the balcony and down the stairs. Alex looked at the empty spot where Simber used to stand. It was strange not having Simber to guard the mansion door at night. Impulsively Alex said, “I’m going for a walk. See you in the morning.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Alex went outside and stood at the seashore for a few moments, feeling the salty spray and tasting it on his lips. He sucked in an enormous breath and let it out as he thought about Arija, and about Mr. Today up on the stage, and the strange but welcome surge of electricity that had pulsed through him. It was still there, that feeling. It was like he’d been sick for so long he forgot what feeling well was like. But today, he remembered. He felt like running and doing push-ups. Instead he turned and jogged past the mansion toward the gate.

“Hello, Alex,” Simber said without turning around.

“Hi.” Alex came up alongside the great cat. He sat down in the grass and leaned up against the gray stone wall. He looked out to the road that encircled Quill, to the very place where he stood with Simber when Quill attacked. A visit to the gate often conjured up strong feelings and vivid memories to those who passed through it. Alex shuddered as he thought about the other side.

“Arrre you cold?”

“No. Just remembering.”

They sat in silence for a while, Simber’s ears, eyes, and nostrils moving now and then.

“Can’t sleep?” A steady, low, rumble-purr added comfort to the night noises. “Orrr doing something else tonight?”

“I haven’t felt like doing much of anything lately,” Alex said, surprising himself’he hadn’t voiced that feeling before, but such was the power of the gate. “Not since . . . you know. Since that whole attack in Justine’s palace.”

Simber nodded.

Alex waved away a mosquito that had strayed in from Quill. “That was really hard, you know?”

“I rrrememberrr,” Simber said in a way that made Alex feel a bit better about it all. “You nearrrly died as I was carrrying you home.”

Alex let his head rest against the wall and he sighed.

“It’s okay forrr you to feel that way,” Simber said. “Yourrr body has rrrecoverrred, but yourrr mind also needs to rrrecoverrr.”

Alex was quiet for a long moment. He pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache coming on. “I just can’t stand to think about another battle like that. About getting hit, and getting hurt like that again. You know?” He remembered how long it had taken to recover, how painful it was. “But,” he said, almost with wonder at the words that were coming out, “if I had to, I’d do it again. I’d do it for Mr. Today and Artimé. For sure I would.”

Then he looked at Simber and asked, “Do you think I have drive?”

Simber tilted his head, as if he were searching for the meaning behind the question. “The rrright question is, do
you
think you do?”

Alex pressed his lips together tightly and nodded. “I guess so. I think I do.”

Simber almost smiled. “How does it feel?”

“It feels scary. Dangerous. It’s a lot easier to just . . . be nothing. Ignore things.”

For the first time since Alex sat down, Simber looked at the boy. “Yes, it is.”

“Mr. Today wanted me to lead. Like . . . when he’s, you know, gone.”

Simber turned his face back to Quill. “I know.”

“I told him no.”

“I know,” the cheetah said again.

“Does he tell you everything?”

Simber smacked his chops. “Prrretty much.”

“Oh.”

“Rrright.” Simber stood, walked to the road, and then returned, arching his back into an impossibly high arc, and then stretching out his hind legs as well, one at a time. “I feel as if therrre’s something else you want to ask me.”

Alex bit his lip. “I’I guess so. I mean . . .”

Simber sat on his haunches and waited patiently.

“I mean, who would . . . be there with me’for me’if I did it? Like, how you’re there with him. Or, you know, would I just be alone? Or have to find my own . . . Because I don’t . . . really . . . have anyone like that. Not at all.” He thought about his friends, knowing of course they’d be there whenever he needed them, but they just didn’t feel . . . big enough. And the job felt so cavernous, and Alex felt so . . . swallowed up by the thought.

Simber turned once again to face Alex. His eyes were warm and they glinted in the moonlight. “I am alrrready herrre forrr you, Alex. Wheneverrr you need me, as long as you need me. And even longerrr,” he said. “It is my duty. But it’s also my pleasurrre.”

Blood rushed to Alex’s face, but at the same time, warmth also flooded his chest. No one in Alex’s memory had ever said words quite like that to him before.

 

Magic in Quill?

A
aron and Gondoleery met daily now by the gate to the high priest’s palace, a most peculiar- looking pair, though to the casual onlooker they appeared simply to be a young man with his grandmother’a deceptively innocent combination. Thus they became nearly invisible to the Quillitary over time.

Every day the two were inseparable as they quietly coerced angry Wanteds and lured them with food to their way of thinking. Aaron, after a few days with Gondoleery, took a chance and told her where he was getting the food. He brought her with him to see the Favored Farm and showed her how easy it was to pick fruit and vegetables. And while Gondoleery had heard of this place from the high priest, she had no concept in her head of what it could be like, and had never gone to it because it was a Necessary job.

“This place reminds me of where I grew up. People planted things,” Gondoleery said. She’d been thinking about her childhood a lot lately now that she had her memory back. “Each person grew their own, and brought the extras to a market once a week for the people who had no place to grow things. And those people would buy it,” she said.

Aaron narrowed his eyes. “What’s ‘buy it’ mean?”

“Exchange a valuable coin for it. The coins could trade for anything, and everyone wanted more coins, so that was the best thing to have.”

“Strange,” Aaron said, glancing over his shoulder to see if the guard was watching, and then shoving a handful of berries into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully. “You can’t eat these coins, can you? So what good are they?”

“No, you can’t eat them, but you can buy food with them, and other things.”

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