Second Exit

by London Lampy

Chapter 21

"What are you doing here?" I ask Tallis, delighted to see him.

"You wanted me here, so I came." I sit down opposite him, he looks exactly the same as he did when I last saw him. "So Exit, do you think you're ready to be a man?" he gives me a long, serious look.

"Do you believe all this, I drink some disgusting stuff that makes me puke, Sosa says a prayer to Gui and suddenly I'm an adult?"

"The question is drumeri, not do I believe it, but do you? Because if you don't then it's all meaningless."

"Why did you never tell about it?" I question him. I remember him mentioning something about initiations, but he didn't go into any details.

"Because you weren't ready, and because it wasn't my place. You're not my son and you're not of my tribe."

"Oh," I reply, feeling hurt. "But Barney's not my father, and I'm not part of this tribe."

"And deep inside you resent him for pushing you into this, don't you? You think he wants too much from you, but you don't want to offend him. You feel beholden to him as well, even though it was his choice to save you, you were much too young to have made a choice back then."

"How do you know all that?" I ask. Those are feelings I've never put into words, even to myself.

Tallis just smiles. "If you want to become a man you need to start standing up for yourself, not simply letting yourself be pulled along like driftwood on the tide. You are allowed to tell Barney what you feel, if you're honest but not cruel any offence he takes is his own issue, not yours. How many times in your life have you found yourself compromised because you were afraid to say what you truly felt? The nuns are in your past, it's time to leave them there."

"Nuns?" I frown. Suddenly sitting across the table from me instead of Tallis is Mother Hardigan, the nun who ran the orphanage I grew up in. She always looked like a walking skull to me, her face is almost fleshless and her eyes are deep set and hooded under her severe black wimple. Seeing her again for the first time in since I left sends a spike of fear through me.

"Exit, you are a bad child," she says, pulling a wooden ruler out of the sleeve of her habit. "Put your hands on the table."

I place my hands out in front of me, palms down, steeling myself for what's about to happen. The ruler comes down with a swish, hitting me hard on the back of my left hand, then before I can take a breath she repeats her action, hitting on the right hand. I swallow, the pain floods through me but I keep silent, I never liked to cry, never liked to let them know how much they hurt me. I look down at my reddened knuckles, then back up at her, except Mother Hardigan has turned back into Tallis again.

"Why did you allow her do that to you?" he asks.

"Because..." I shrug. I can't think of an answer.

"Do you believe that you are a bad child?"

"No," I shake my head.

"Did you do anything to deserve that?"

"No."

"Put your hands on the table, you wicked boy." Suddenly she's back.

"No," I fold them in my lap.

"Are you defying me? The more you refuse the worse your punishment is going to be."

I'm afraid of her, but I'm not going to let her hit me again. "No. I'm nineteen now, I'm not under your control any more. You can't punish me and I've done nothing wrong, leave me alone."

"Nothing wrong?" she snorts. "Boys like you, you sin in your sleep, take your punishment."

"No, go away and leave me alone," I say firmly, and amazingly, she does. Tallis returns in her place.

"That's a start," he nods.

"It's that easy?"

"No, that was only practise. You need to learn to do that everyday, for the rest of your life."

"Oh."

"But you have the strength in you to make a fine man, you simply need to recognise it. I always knew that, I would never have taught you all that I did otherwise."

"I miss you," I say. "Even if you were a grumpy old bastard most of the time."

"Huh, you don't need to leave everything behind from your childhood you know, the good manners can stay."

I try to suppress a smile. "Do you remember what I told you before I left? About how you taught me to be proud of who I am, I meant it, every word."

"I know."

"And I'm sorry about the lies I told, by the end I really didn't know where I belonged. Can you forgive me?"

He gives me a sad smile. "I can't answer that now."

"Why?"

"I don't have the power to do it, I'm only the tiny part of Tallis that lives in you. You need to find the rest of me, then ask the question again."

"But...do you think the real...the rest of Tallis can forgive me?"

"I'd like to think so," he replies. "I would very much like to think so."

I open my eyes, the room is dark and Tallis has gone. The ceiling stretches high above me and is studded with stars, the walls are trees and somehow I'm now lying on my back, my head resting on something warm and solid. I tip my head and glance up, Barney's thick beard is above me and the solid thing is his thigh. I try to speak but it comes out as a croak, my mouth is dryer then it's ever been and all I can do is whisper.

"Can I have some water?" I ask.

Barney's face looks down at me, then he says words I can't understand, but not to me. Sosa is still here, sitting next to Barney by the dying embers of the fire. He leans across and puts his hands on me, one on my chest and one on my forehead, and both places he touches me feel warm and tingle like pins and needles. "Na," he says, shaking his head. He then removes his hands, although somehow I can still feel them on me.

"Not yet," Barney strokes my hair while Sosa disappears from sight. He comes back carrying a wooden bowl, Barney helps me to sit while Sosa hands me the bowl and I think Barney must have got it wrong, that the old man is bringing me water but when I take it off him I realise it contains the same bitter liquid I drank earlier.

"No...I don't want any more," I croak, trying to push it away, but Barney holds the bowl to my mouth and I don't have the strength to fight him.

"Calm down son, it shouldn't make you vomit this time. You must complete your journey to become a man."

Sosa holds my mouth open while Barney tips the contents in then they pinch my nose and force my jaw shut until I have no choice but to swallow the awful liquid. The bitterness makes me retch and some of it is forced up into my nose where is stings and burns, but I don't throw up properly this time so they let go of me. I take a few deep gulps of air before my whole body suddenly feels boneless and I fall back against Barney again.

"Easy there," I hear him say as I try to fight against my eyelids closing. I gather all my strength and force then to open and when I do I'm surprised to see that the sun has risen over the clearing and it's bright daylight.

I sit up and look around, the fire is now nothing but charcoal and ashes, and Barney and Sosa are nowhere to in sight. On the opposite side of the clearing I see an echoback woman sitting in the shade of a tree braiding long, thin leaves together. She turns her head and smiles at me, she's young and pretty, my age or perhaps a little older, and is dressed for the forest, the wide necklace that sits on her collar bones covered with tiny iridescent stones that catch the sunlight. I know that I've met her before, she must be one of the villages but I can't place her. I feel like I remember her singing but that can't be right, I haven't heard anyone sing since I came here.

I stand up and walk over to her and close up I realise that the necklace isn't covered with stones but pieces of the inside of a shell, smoothed and rounded into flat beads that capture the light in blue and green and purple, it's very beautiful.

"Sit down," she says to me, patting the ground beside her then going back to her braiding. I do as she asks, watching her.

"What are you making?" I ask.

"Nothing," she laughs. "It's just something to occupy me while I waited for you." She puts the leaves to one side.

"Where have Barney and Sosa gone?"

"They'll be back soon, don't worry, they haven't left you here alone."

The woman smiles again, and something occurs to me. "I can understand you, you speak my language."

"We speak the same language," she replies.

"I've met you before, haven't I? I'm sorry, I can't remember where it was."

She reaches out and touches my right leg, the tips of her fingers brushing over the bullet scar on my thigh. "The last time you saw me, you were close to death."

"You sang to me." That's it, that's where I saw her.

"I'm glad you didn't die, you have too much ahead of you to die young." She pats my leg, then takes her hand back.

"Do you know my future?" I ask.

"I know some of your possible futures, one of them could happen, or none of them, depending on the choices you make."

"What choices should I make then?"

"I can't tell you that," she laughs. "I'm not here for that."

"What are you here for?"

"To tell you this. Before you can be reborn you need to change, you need to let people love you."

I blink at her, puzzled. "I don't understand."

"Stop running away from love," she says firmly.

"I don't."

"Yes, you do. You don't like to let anyone get too close, I know all your excuses. "you don't want me as a boyfriend, I'll be bad, I'll cheat"." She holds out her hands, inside them I can see Ry and me, and I'm telling him just that. "As soon as you realised he was falling in love you pushed him away." She claps her hands together, the image is gone. "Even here," now in the palms of her hands I see The Firebrat in full sail on clear blue seas, "you ran."

"If you know all that then you know I couldn't have done anything else."

"You made excuses, you refused to make a choice, even when you knew where your heart was going."

"I did make a choice," I say flatly.

"Only once you knew it was too late, you didn't want to accept the love you were being offered."

Is all that true, do I do these things for the reasons she's suggesting? I don't know. "But love goes away," I say, looking into her golden eyes.

"Sometimes," she admits. " But not always."

"Jack..." I feel like I want to cry.

"I know. He left you and it hurt."

"Hurt?" I repeat. I'm not sure that's a big enough word for what I felt. He broke every promise he made, he left me in the orphanage, he disappeared. No one had ever cared about me before, then someone did, then they went. It would have been so much easier if it had never happened in the first place.

The woman reaches out and strokes my face. "One of the saddest things I can think of is a person choosing to live a life without love because they're too afraid of feeling pain, do you understand?"

"Yes." I do understand.

"I know it's not easy for you, I know your life has been far from easy, and I wish it could have been different, but I don't have the power to change things. It's now time for you to let people in."

"Which people?"

The corners of her mouth turn up. "Only you know that, and even if you do make some wrong choices it's no reason to stop trying."

"Alright," I nod. I'm not sure she's right, but I don't think she'll stop until she gets some sort of agreement from me.

"Now you're trying to make me shut up," the woman laughs.

"Maybe."

"You're a very stubborn person in your own way, aren't you? Don't worry, it's a good thing, most of the time." She turns her face to the sky, squinting into the sun. "It's nearly time for you to go back, what else can I tell you? Listen to your friend Vio, she cares about you very much, and watch out for that Vin, he's a snake."

"I know," I agree with her.

"And whatever people tell you, you're not stupid, but perhaps you could try picking up a book or a newspaper every now and then." She cock her head as if she's listening to something. "It's time."

The woman stands and I do the same, she wraps her arms around me hugging me tightly for a few seconds, and warmth seems to flow through my whole body from hers. When she pulls back the sun catches her necklace again and I find myself staring at it.

"You always did like that," she touches it. "You took it once when I was asleep, I think you wanted to play with it, but you dropped it out of the tree..."

Suddenly I can smell burning, I'm almost chocking on fumes, I look around the clearing but I can't see the fire, and when I turn back she's gone but now everything is thick, dark smoke that fills my lungs, my mouth, my nose and a hand is on my head and I'm damp. I cough and cough, darkness is everywhere, I try to suck in air but it's smoke and I try to shout for help but the words won't come and I hear screaming, and I'm screaming then somebody hits me, slaps my face and I'm in the clearing again.

Finally I can breath, I'm lying on my back on the ground looking up at the sky which is dusty blue, the sun is either about to rise or has just set, and Barney and Sosa are on either side of me. Barney helps me to sit while the old man hands me a canteen of water.

"Is this real?" I ask Barney, panting.

"Without getting into a philosophical debate on the nature of reality, yes, this is real."

I take a long drink of water, I can't ever remember being this thirsty before and once I empty the canteen Sosa passes me another. "This is the third evening since we came out here, you've been away for over two days."

"Two days? That can't be right, it's only been an hour or two. I spoke to Tallis, and then the woman..." I try to recall what happened, bits are there but it's hazy, did Mother Hardigan really hit my hands? I look at my knuckles, they're dirty, but not bruised or swollen.

"I can assure you it has been two days. Don't worry son, it's like that for everyone."

"I saw people, I spoke to them..." I rub my head, my hand comes away covered in oil and I can feel it trickling down my neck. "But I can't remember it all."

"That's normal too, but your soul remembers."

Sosa says something to Barney. "It's time for your tattoo," he translates.

The old man produces a roll of cloth, inside is a jumble of sewing needles and a pot of thick, black ink. Sosa takes my arm and I don't want to watch so I look away across the clearing. A large tree catches my eye, I was sitting there, sitting with the woman, she told me something important.

The needles are painful but I feel sort of numb, it's as if I know my arm hurts, but kind of like it's happening to someone else. While Sosa works Barney hands me some flat bread and a banana.

"Eat slowly," he says. "Your stomach is empty and won't welcome too much too fast."

"What happened to me?" I ask between bites of bread.

"You were reborn as an adult," he smiles. "That's what happened."

"But...did I really see Tallis, and the woman, or was I dreaming it?"

"You think there's nothing more than the here and now and the world of dreams?"

"I don't know," I shrug with one shoulder, so as not to get jabbed extra hard by Sosa. "It seemed real, at the time."

"Then it was real, to you." I suppose I'm not going to get a straight answer from him. "Now you're a man you'll be considered good marriage material," he grins at me, encouragingly.

"I don't want to get married," I say firmly.

"Maybe not right away, no, but in the future. I'll introduce you to all the most eligible girl's families, you can have your pick."

For a moment I consider going along with him, for now anyway, not wanting to offend him or speak my mind, but suddenly that feels wrong. This is something he wants, not me, why shouldn't I tell him no?

"Thank you, but I don't want you to do that," I say.

"Ah, son, you'll feel differently once we're back home in the village and you've a decent meal inside you and got some sleep," he chuckles.

"Barney, firstly, this isn't my home and I have no intention of staying here any longer than I have to. Secondly, when it comes to sex I like men not women, so getting married would not be a good idea."

"Oh," he says quietly, his eyebrows drawing into a puzzled frown. "I didn't realise that."

Deep inside my mind I get an image of Tallis giving me an approving nod.

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