“So, where are you guys from?” Eleanor asked. She began walking beside the kids as her father led the way. They didn’t really need to be led through such flat and colorful landscapes, but it didn’t hurt.
“Retina. Our mom was a medic,” Sophia stated.
Eleanor’s eyebrow cocked up. She started Sophia up and down multiple times. “I never would’ve thought you’re from the big city.”
“Well, you know how it is.” She didn’t, but by the look on her face, she could tell that the sprawling city landscape might not be what it once was. “I hear they'll be rebuilding it soon, though. What about you? Where are you from?”
Eleanor rubbed the tattoo on her shoulder. “Um, the Isle of Fos, I think. I was only there as a baby, though. Immigrated here after the Festival.”
Sophia and Taylor glanced at each other (some sort of sibling telepathy, probably). Taylor tilted his head. “Where’s Isle of Foos? Faus?”
Finally, her father overheard the conversation. “The Isle of Fos is right off the coast of Sclera. Well, a bit farther than that, but the point stands. It’s a really small island, but the people are very welcoming and cultural traditions have high importance to them.”
Eleanor rubbed her shoulder harder. She knew her father wasn’t from the isle, and it was easy to tell. He always was skeptical of the traditions and said he was biting his nails the entire ceremony, but he never judged. He said he was mainly scared that she'd be in pain when the tattoo was put on, but he failed to realize it wasn't a pen and ink that put it on. Allegedly, Ellie slept like a baby during it all. She wondered if the new kids would judge.
“Huh, okay,” Taylor said, rubbing his chin. “So, what’s a “Festival” from Fos like?”
Eleanor cut in before her father could as they arrived at the steps. The house looked just like her own. “Well, basically, when a baby takes their first steps, the Sages can bless them! It’s always something about happiness or wealth and stuff like that.” Quickly, she rolled up her sleeve and showed the intricate painting of a butterfly. “They called mine ‘Rebirth’ or something. Means that I’ll end up evolving into a great person and see many things in my life, I think. I don’t remember their exact words but that was the gist.”
Daddy was unresponsive, simply helping the two children up and knocking on the door. Almost instantly, footsteps made their ways to the entrance. The door swung open and revealed a woman in a lab coat and nice dress. Eleanor glanced between Sophia. How was this well-kept lady and them related?
The woman quickly fixed her blonde hair and adjusted her coat, then fidgeting with every other part of her outfit. “Well, hello s-s-s sir!” she stuttered as she tied her hair into a ponytail. “S-s-s see I was just about to head over! How funny!” Despite the platinum blonde hair, the woman had thin eyes and tan skin. At first, Eleanor thought she could also be from Earth, like Daddy, but then she thought about how people from Iris had a chance of getting hair colors that weren’t the most natural. Supposedly a harmless mutation that could be passed down. A lot of blue and pink haired children were on the Isle of Fos because of it.
The woman was mostly normal, besides her stuttering and fashion choices. Sophia and Taylor were quick to latch onto her, and Eleanor simply wondered if there was any blood connection between them. Daddy made small talk with her for a while, leaving the children bored on the steps. Eleanor eavesdropped with a hawk’s eye. Taylor had already run inside, disappearing behind his mom’s legs.
“You’ve been invited for dinner at my house,” Ellie grumbled.
Sophia sighed. “Darn. That sucks.”
“Yeah,” Eleanor pouted, “It does.”
“Can I see your treehouse when I go over?” Sophia asked, feigning innocence.
Ellie snapped at her. “No! Only I get the treehouse.”
Sophia rolled her eyes and shrugged, then she angled her body away from the girl. Eleanor gave her a mean glare, then returned to watching her father.
Her eyes widened. The neighbor herself wasn’t scary (she was just weird). Ellie didn’t mind handling a neighbor and her annoying kids– nothing to fear there.
The scary part about her was that she saw red creep onto her father’s face as he stared at the woman happily talking about her job as a combat medic. That shook Ellie to her very core.
The rest of the day was a haze of greeting each other and explaining backgrounds, but Ellie refused to pay attention to any of it. When she finally decided to come back to reality, twilight spread across the sky and a plate of rabbit’s leg and salad was in front of her. She picked around the toppings to reach the lettuce.
Her neighbors, on the other hand, devoured it. Even the strange woman named Ms. Molly Gatlon finished her plate in a record time. Sophia and Taylor happily chatted with her father, much to Ellie’s discontent. It was even worse when he started telling them about the books he wrote and how he’d publish them once he got a name for himself in Retina. Daddy knew better than to disturb Eleanor when she was being moody, so Molly was the first to strike conversation.
“I saw that you had a treehouse out there. It’s very nice,” she said in a sweet tone.
Ellie pouted and crossed her arms. “Thanks,” she mumbled. She caught a glimpse of Sophia rolling her eyes. Daddy raised his brow. That’s when Eleanor felt real fear. She knew that look.
“Eleanor,” he started. She prayed to the beings beyond the stars he wouldn’t say it. “It’s a special occasion, so I think we should have desserts.” She felt a glimmer of hope, only for it to be crushed. “Why don’t you go show the neighbors your treehouse in the meantime? I’m sure Ms. Gatlon and I can manage to create some delicious cookies on our own.”
Catching the drift rather quickly, Molly nodded in agreement. “I’d love to see it someday, but somebody’s gotta get baking!” She rolled up her sleeves comically, “Don’t worry. I’m quite a pro in the kitchen.”
“So is Daddy,” Ellie snapped back. She resisted the urge to say that he didn’t need any help. She fell back in her chair and waited. No way in the whole wide galaxy would she let those intruders inspect her treehouse.
Well, that was until she saw the look in Daddy’s eyes.
“So, um, this is my treehouse,” Eleanor huffed, picking her doll from its stand and claiming the corner of plushies and blankets for herself. “There are some board games over there.”
Sophia happily clambered into the treehouse, smiling as she looked around. “It’s awesome! No wonder you don’t let anyone in.” She gasped in awe when she saw fairy-lights strung across the ceiling like miniature stars. Ellie caught her breath.
For once, it felt like somebody understood her
Taylor was far more stubborn than Sophia was, refusing to enter for the first five minutes. Once Sophia pestered him enough with all the fun they were having, he begrudgingly climbed in. He quickly found his way to coloring books and board games. “Have you played any of these?” he asked.
“Uh, Operation. I’ve played a few card games with my dad, but that’s about it,” she explained. “Have you?”
“Nah. Last time we were in any cities, it was a wasteland. You were lucky to find food,” he said. Surprisingly, his tone didn’t change much. This was just something normal for him. Eleanor clearly thought otherwise, her eyes wide. She knew affairs on Iris had been bad, about ¼ chunks of the planet had been blown off, after all, but it was shocking seeing it up close for the first time in years.
Sophia lightly tossed a comic book at him. “Taylor! Now isn’t the time to talk about that.”
“When will it be?!” he barked. Tears welled up in his eyes, like an already fractured dam had just caved in. “It’s never been the time to talk about it, has it? Sorry to say, but you got your leg shot off and we were living in the middle of a war before Mom found us!”
Sophia recoiled, her lip quivering as she rubbed her prosthetic thigh. “Taylor I didn’t mean that–”
“Well, you did anyways.” Taylor said.
“I just thought it’d be rude in front of the host! I didn’t mean any of that!” Sophia tried to defend herself, but it was all to deaf ears. Eleanor could do nothing but watch with intrigue and sadness.
Taylor wiped his arm across his face. “I’ll just go,” he murmured, then took a coloring book and jumped down the ladder. He ran in the direction of the house on the hill. Sophia knew she couldn’t run as fast as him, so she stayed where she was. It was hard changing her little brother’s mind. There was no need to overdo herself.
“I’m sorry,” she sighed, “My brother is always a bit sensitive to this stuff. And it’s changing so fast. Just give him some time to adjust.”
Eleanor stopped her from going on. “I get it. I am, too.”
“So that’s why you tried to pull my leg off?” she chuckled sheepishly.
Ellie scratched her neck awkwardly. “Yeah. Sorry about that.”
“It’s in the past.”
There was nothing else for them to say beyond that point. Ellie shifted uncomfortably and Sophia fidgeted with the ankle joints of her prosthetic. Eleanor couldn’t help but watch it curiously. Her companion noticed and blushed under the intense gaze.
Eleanor caught it quickly. Embarrassment spread to her own face as well. “Oh, um, sorry. I just thought it looked cool. It’s like plastic and metal.”
“Oh, really? That’s nice to hear, actually. I was told that some people are gonna think it’s weird,” Sophia coyly slid some of her hair behind her ear. Then, she adjusted her handkerchief to tie it better around her hair.
“Well, it is,” Eleanor replied blankly, “But the good weird. Like, multi-color eyes and stuff. Cool and different. My dad says that every weird is a good weird, though.”
“Maybe he’s right,” Sophia chuckled as she scooted closer to Eleanor. Eleanor was happy to share the cozy corner of pillows and blankets. She even handed a stuffed cat toy to her new friend.
It was hard to tell the time afterwards. Small talk and deep conversations blended together into long talks, and soon enough the sun had fully set. Ellie had to wonder if they were even using the oven. “So, what’s with the doll?” Sophia said, pointing to the toy in Eleanor’s hands, “I know you said you’re from the Isle of Fos, but you never explained the doll. Her name is Kia, right?”
“It’s a tradition. After the ceremonies, I got a doll with the same tattoo. It’s just a thing.”
“I like her clothes. The dress is cute.”
“My mom made it.”
To Eleanor, the best thing about having a weird girl like her as a friend was that she didn’t seem to pry. Sophia simply hummed at the answer and didn’t ask further. Ellie smiled.
Then, an idea popped into her mind.
“Can I show you something cool?” she asked as she gently placed the doll down.
Sophia grinned, “Of course!”
Eleanor took Sophia’s hand and suddenly they were bolting away from the treehouse, following the shores of the river and wading through thick, tall grass as soft as a cotton blanket. “Where are we going?” Sophia asked, tripping over her legs several times. Eleanor only paused for brief moments, but the neighbor never complained.
“Where the river ends. It’s really pretty,” she said, “Just trust me.”
“Okay. I’ll trust you.”
Eleanor couldn’t think of anything to say back.