written and illustrated by March
One day Keyro invited Martin to come out and play and explore the woods with him. Martin liked Keyro. The young alien seemed no older than Martin himself, but came across as so
much smarter. And Martin, a generally timid boy, somehow felt safe in the company of the lavendar-skinned youngster, and was usually willing to go along with whatever adventure Keyro might concoct.
Martin arrived on his bicycle outside of where he knew the aliens' tent-dome to be after a long and rather hot ride. Keyro stuck his head out of the invisible, cloaked tent -- which made for a very strange image of Keyro's head seemingly floating in mid air -- and grinned. "Martin! Good to see you."
"Uh, yeah." said Martin, not sure whether to laugh or be slightly disturbed. "Mind if I see the rest of you?"
Keyro suddenly realized what he must have looked like, and blushed. He stepped out of the tent the rest of the way. He was, of course, naked. "I thought we might explore these woods today." suggested Keyro. "You know, we've never really been beyond the mud hole. And according to my readings, it's a huge forest."
Martin looked into the dense woods. "Well, okay, but I don't wanna get lost in there."
Keyro giggled. "That's impossible. These antennae of mine are not just for hearing. They're directional locators. Sort of like a built-in compass. Botarans do not get lost."
Martin smiled. "Well, okay, then. Let's go!"
Keyro put up a hand. "You're not going in like that, are you?"
Martin sighed. He knew what Keyro meant. Keyro was not entirely comfortable around clothed humanoids of his own age. Botaran children routinely went around naked unless they needing clothing for special protection. The only problem was that Keyro tended to be a little too insistent that other kids around him went naked, too. "Keyro, I don't really like being naked except when we're in the mud pool, and then it just makes sense. Do I have to?"
Keyro thought about this. "Perhaps a compromise?"
The ball was back in Martin's court. Martin had to admit to himself it was a hot day, and the woods would make it humid. "Undershorts and shoes. I don't wanna step on anything nasty in there in bare feet."
Keyro just nodded, grinning slightly. "Agreed."
Martin tried to pry his T-shirt off. But his hot and rather damp body from the bicycle ride made this a more difficult proposition than Martin had expected. His own arms -- and part of his head -- were soon tangled in a half-removed T-shirt. "Uh -- help?" pleaded Martin.
Keyro didn't quite stifle a laugh. "See, that's why I don't bother with those things. When I do have to wear something, that's what's always happening to me. Hold still. This is a good time for me to practice."
"Practice what?" came the slightly muffled and suddenly rather alarmed voice of Martin. As he watched, for his eyes were still outside of the shirt collar, Keyro closed his eyes, and when they reopened, they were glowing bright blue. Martin had seen that once before, but only on Jahv, just as the boy had shot a lightning bolt. Martin felt a brief moment of panic, but this soon passed as he suddenly felt the T-shirt lifted from his upper body. He also felt his shorts get pulled down around his ankles, nearly pulling his underwear down with them. "Hey!" said Martin, momentarily indignant. Then he looked at Keyro again. The boy's eyes had returned to normal, but he looked exhausted. "Are you -- how did you do that?" asked Martin.
Keyro let out a tired breath. "Remember the telepathic anesthesia I did on you once, when you hurt your leg playing in the mud?" Martin nodded. "That wasn't a specific trick so much as the fact that my telepathic abilities are a lot higher than normal. All Botarans can do some things. Mostly it's the language absorption trick. I've been practicing to see if I can move objects with my mind. Your clothes are the largest items I've tried so far."
"Well, it worked." said Martin, carefully stepping out of the shorts around his ankles, and admitting to himself that he didn't entirely understand everything Keyro had said. Every so often the boy sounded way too grown-up. "Can we stash these and my bike in your tent?"
"Certainly." replied Keyro. With Martin's clothes and bike safely stashed away, the two youngsters headed off into the woods. It wasn't long before they came across one of their favorite places to play -- the mud hole. Martin didn't really like getting dirty and grimy all that much, but the mud was fun, more like playing with wet clay -- all over the place -- and Keyro was also fun to hang around with, who for all of his seeming sophistication enjoyed playing in this earthy morass as much as anyone. Both looked somewhat longingly at the mud pool, but both soon realized they were on other business today. They continued beyond, and further into the woods.
"I wonder if we'll come across any wildlife?" speculated Keyro. "I've made a rather thorough study of the names of many animals."
"I hope not." said Martin, who wasn't too worried. He recalled that, not long after Jahv had first appeared, he, Davy, and Keith had taken the young alien to the local mall, and had caused a decided ruckus in the pet store when the assorted tame animals didn't care the least bit for the scent of the young offworlder. This was why Martin had, sadly, never brought his dog Fix out to visit the aliens. He really wanted them to meet the little mutt someday, but he didn't want to see Fix go nuts the way the animals in the pet store had. As for wildlife, most of it tended to avoid people anyway. Martin imagined that probably went double for alien people.
Indeed, they didn't seem to encounter much more than birds as they went further into the woods. The trees grew larger and were packed more densely than at the perimeter area the boys were used to. There was enough sunlight, though, to keep the area from looking creepy, which suited both of them, especially Martin, just fine.
At one point they came across a sloping, grassy hill. Both boys tried to run down it, but both of them also slipped, rolling the rest of the way to the bottom and coming to a stop with grass and leaves in their hair and green streaks on their bodies. "For an accident," giggled Keyro, "that was kind of fun!"
Martin smiled. "Yeah, I guess it was. But, boy, are we gonna need baths."
Keyro giggled again. "You worry too much about that. We can clean up at the end of the day. Meanwhile, it's no big deal."
They continued their exploration of the woods, mostly just wandering around, until Keyro spotted something out of the corner of his eye. "What's that?"
"What's what?" asked Martin.
"I see some sort of building over in the distance." stated Keyro. "Let's check it out."
"Maybe we shouldn't." said Martin timidly. "Somebody might be there that doesn't like kids."
Keyro peered more intently into the slight gloom of the shadows. "Place looks old, and abandoned. But we'll be careful. Come on."
Both boys proceeded at a slower place. Finally Martin could see what Keyro's far more acute vision had picked out. It looked like a very old cabin, that could've been in the area for a century or more. As they got closer, it was apparent that while the structure was more or less sound, it had also been somewhat burned out. The heavy logs comprising the cabin were partially blackened, as were the stones which comprised a makeshift chimney. The shingles which made for a roof had several holes in them.
"What do you think?" asked Keyro. Martin was surprised to be asked an opinion. But he took a careful look. There was no sign of recent activity. No furniture of any sort around. No graffitti indicating the presence of gangs. Martin thought it was pretty possible that he and Keyro were the first people to pass this way in a very long time. "I guess it's safe enough."
The two boys approached the cabin and found the door. It was closed. The holes that existed for one-time windows were very small. "Somebody wanted privacy." said Keyro, walking up to the door. It opened easily. Martin stood several steps back, rather nervously. "I can't see anything." stated Keyro. "It's like it's totally dark inside. Just a few slight shafts of light from the holes in the roof, but they're not showing anything. But I don't smell anything except musty air and rotted wood. No one's been here for a very long time. Maybe we can poke around and find something interesting, some sort of artifact."
"Well, okay." said Martin, not at all enthusiastic about it. "But let's find a way to prop the door open. Maybe we can see a little better in there."
Keyro found a large rock nearby and propped the door open. "I don't know if this is going to help much." he said. "I mean, for seeing what we're doing. It looks completely dark in there."
"I wonder what could cause that?" asked Martin, as both boys stepped through the doorway --
And found that the floor of the cabin was about six inches lower than the ground outside. Both Martin and Keyro went sprawling, and landed surprisingly softly on what felt like two tons of dust. It gave both of the boys sneezing fits for the next several minutes. Martin's sounded normal enough. Keyro's sneezes sounded somewhere between a whistle and a quack, a sort of "whee-HONK!" sound.
"Wow." wheezed Martin when he finally stopped sneezing. He felt weak from all of it. "Now I know why my mom tells me to dust every so often."
"I'm not sure this is just dust." commented Keyro. "Smells burnt. And it's making my eyes itch."
"I don't think we're gonna find anything in here." suggested Martin. "And I don't wanna trip like that again."
"Agreed." said Keyro. "Let's get out of here."
When they emerged, the two boys looked at each other with astonishment. Their bodies were heavily covered in streaks of grey and black. If it had been even slightly worse, it would've been impossible to discern any color on either boy. "Soot!" said Martin. "That wasn't dust, it was a big mess of soot and ash!"
"Is it harmful?" asked Keyro.
"Not really, I don't think." said Martin. "Just real dirty." He tried to brush himself off, but this just made matters worse.
"We were sort of getting that way, anyway." remarked Keyro. "But why would stuff like that be in there?"
"Maybe a fire, a long time ago." said Martin, trying to wipe some of the grime from his face, at least. "But left the outside of the building standing. Weird."
"So are these woods, at times." said Keyro, also trying to wipe his face clean a bit. "Let's continue on for a while longer, then head back."
Martin nodded. The two boys wandered away from the old rotted cabin and further into the woods, with Keyro in the lead. The next point of interest they discovered was a huge mound of dirt, with some weeds protruding from it at various points. "Odd place for a hill." said Keyro.
"Looks like somebody dumped this dirt pile here and then forgot about it." said Martin. "Race ya to the top of it!"
The dirt of the hill turned out to be fairly loose, and slightly wet from either a recent rainfall or just the local humidity, and the boys' arms and legs sank in as they climbed. By the time they reached the top, they were not only covered with soot and streaked with grass, but had a fair amount of dirt on their arms, lower legs, and chests. Keyro won the race, but not by much. Additional strength doesn't do a whole lot of good when the surface you're racing on is that unstable.
"If we get much dirtier than this, no one's going to know it's us!" said Martin.
"Maybe that should be our objective!" exclaimed Keyro. "I mean, not so they don't recognize us. I think that'd be impossible." Keyro twitched his two antennae as examples. "But I wonder how dirty we can get before we head back and jump in the mud to finish it off?"
"You're weird." giggled Martin.
"But you like the idea?" asked Keyro.
"I don't know how much worse we can get, but I guess at this point it don't make much difference." replied Martin.
"'Worse'?!" protested Keyro, raising an arm in the air in an exaggerated fashion. "No, Martin, you don't understand! We are a culture unto ourselves today! A culture of two, for whom getting dirty is the desired objective! This isn't wrong, or bad. This is good! This is beauty!"
"You been drinkin' orange juice or something?" asked Martin, trying not to laugh.
Keyro pretended to be insulted, but ultimately shrugged and grinned. "Well, I thought it sounded good." The two boys tried to slide down the hill, ended up tumbling a bit, and wound up at the bottom in a cloud of dust. After a bit of coughing to clear their throats, they picked themselves up, Keyro having to prevent Martin from instinctively trying to brush himself off, and they continued further into the forest.
At one point, exploring some tall grasses in the woods, Keyro put up his hand. "Wildlife!" he whispered.
Martin gulped. That could mean anything from a chipmunk to a bear. "What is it?"
"A member of the ophidia family." replied Keyro.
"A what?!" exclaimed Martin, wondering not for the first time if Keyro was really as close in age to himself as he actually looked. The way Keyro spoke sometimes, it was very hard to know for certain.
"A member of the ophidia family." said Keyro again. "In this case it is one of the limbless specimens of -- "
"Let me see." said Martin. He had no idea what Keyro was talking about. He'd never heard of an "ophidia". He edged around Keyro and looked about twelve paces further along, and saw the animal Keyro was talking about.
It was, in plain language, a snake. A large one, at that.
And Keyro was clearly clueless about it.
Martin nearly wet his underpants. He didn't know if this thing was poisonous or not, and didn't intend to hang around long enough to find out. "Keyro?" Martin squeaked.
"Yes?" asked Keyro.
"RUN!" cried Martin, turning around and taking off at full speed, barely looking over his shoulder long enough to see if Keyro was following. He was. After a few minutes, the two boys stopped. "That was a snake!" said Martin.
"That is the standard term, yes." agreed Keyro.
"Some of them are dangerous!" said Martin. "And they're all creepy."
Keyro blinked. "I didn't know some of them were dangerous. I haven't gotten that far in my reading yet. Was that one dangerous?"
"I don't know." said Martin. "An' I don't care."
The two boys slumped to the ground, Martin leaning up against a tree. "Keyro, how can you sound like you're so smart, act like you know so much, and then something like that happens?"
"I'm still fairly new to this world." replied Keyro. "And there's a lot of animals on this planet."
Martin sighed, and stood. "I gotta pee. I'll be right back."
"Plenty of bushes around here." commented Keyro. "It's not as though I'll be offended."
Martin just shrugged. Inwardly, he didn't really want to separate from Keyro. The forest seemed to be getting thicker. So he turned his back on Keyro, lowered his shorts, and aimed at the nearest bush. He could also hear Keyro stifling a giggle. "What's so funny?" said Martin once he had finished.
"A very dirty you compared to a very clean butt." replied Keyro. "You sure you want to keep wearing those shorts?"
"Yes, and stop lookin' at my butt." replied Martin.
"Well, sorry, but the sun's glare off it was a little too much to ignore." giggled Keyro.
"Why, you -- !" said Martin, who looked to try to tackle Keyro, but the young alien was to his feet and running off into the woods too quickly. Martin gave chase. "Come back here!" yelled Martin. He followed the sound of Keyro's dashing through the dense leaves and bushes. Then, abruptly, there was a shriek and silence.
Martin froze in his tracks. That wasn't a good sound. He paised and listened. "Keyro?" No response. "KEYRO?!"
From off in the distance, Martin heard a distant, "Help!"
Martin swallowed hard. The woods looked a lot creepier all of a sudden. Martin didn't move. Then he heard it again. "Martin, help!"
Martin moved forward towards the sound of the cry. He couldn't tell what was ahead, but it seemed to be getting a bit lighter. "Keyro?" Martin said, but not as loudly as he should. He couldn't seem to work up any volume.
Then Martin emerged from the woods and almost wished he hadn't. There was about ten feet of grass, and then -- nothing. It was a cliff. Martin could see more forest on the other side, but he was too scared to get close to the edge, and even as it was, it looked like a long way down. And there was no sign of Keyro. "KEYRO!" he screamed, not taking one step closer to the edge.
There was a long pause. "Martin!" came the response. "I'm -- holding on here -- just past the edge. I need your help!"
Martin got on his hands and knees and crawled to the edge of the drop-off, trembling every few inches. It took every ounce of courage the boy had to look over. It was a terrifying sight. Keyro had grabbed a thick protruding branch about a foot and a half down from the edge, which wasn't very far, but he had no way of climbing up. To even reach up and shift his entire weight too much, and would almost certainly cause the branch to break off. It was a good sixty or seventy feet down -- probably more -- to a pile of jagged-looking rocks. Not even Keyro could withstand that, and there would be little way to get the injured alien out of there. "A -- Are you okay?" Martin squeaked.
"Yes, but I can't get back up myself." said Keyro, sounding as terrified as Martin felt. His voice trembled. "I need your help. You've got to reach down to me."
Martin backed away, terrified at the prospect. "Can't -- Can't you bring yourself up the way you lifted my shirt off or something?"
"No!" cried Keyro, not angrily but now showing his own terror. "No one can do that! It doesn't work that way!"
Martin was close to tears. "Keyro -- I -- I don't think I can do that."
"Martin, I can't climb up on my own." said Keyro as calmly as he could. "You're the only one who can save me. Martin, please! You're my best friend. Please!"
Martin bit his lower lip. He thought about all the wonderful times he'd had with Keyro, including today. He recalled teaching the boy that it was okay to show affection for someone else that you really cared about. He balanced that against the terror he was feeling at the idea of lowering himself over the side far enough to reach Keyro.
Finally, with a determination he had never felt before -- and wasn't entirely sure he ever wanted to feel again after he got through with this -- Martin choked back his tears, and his fear, and launched himself at the drop-off and reached out to Keyro. He caught the boy's hands just as one of the rocks he'd been hanging onto broke away. The weight was nearly enough to drag Martin over the edge. Keyro did his best to move his feet against the edge of the drop-off even as Martin squirmed to back up and bring his friend back from the edge. Finally, after what seemed like forever, Keyro was brought back to safety. He and Martin collapsed into an exhausted, relieved, sweaty, grass-stained, dirty, soot-covered heap.
Keyro rolled off of Martin and both boys just laid there for a time. Martin started to cry. Keyro still looked shaken. Finally, though, the young alien turned to his friend. "Martin, I'm okay."
"My fault." sniffed Martin. "If I hadn't chased you..."
Keyro reached out to his friend. "I was going to suggest a race in that direction anyway. This isn't your fault. I was looking over my shoulder to make sure you were following when I fell. There's no need for -- whatever's happening to you. The water from your eyes."
Martin sniffed again. "I'm sorry."
"Nothing to apologize for. Sometimes I wish -- I could do that. Maybe I can and don't know it. It's just not how I was raised."
Martin tried to gain control of his crying, with little luck. "What about you? You couldn't do anything to save yourself? You know so much."
Keyro paused, looking at the confused boy.
"You're so smart and strong and everything..." said Martin in gasps between tears.
"Not -- as much as you think." said Keyro, coming as close to tears as he ever had, and surprising himself at that. "Martin, I know how I act sometimes. That's just -- how I am. How my people are. But I'm not that much stronger than you. And I'm no older."
"You're not?" said Martin, his tears finally calming.
"I guess Jahv and I never told you. We calculated it. We're the same age -- ages -- as you and your friends. The difference is -- too small to even mention."
"So you really are -- just another kid?" asked Martin.
"You doubted?" asked Keyro.
"I'm also just another kid who's -- well..." Keyro paused.
"What?" asked Martin.
"Terribly embarassing thing for a space explorer to admit." muttered Keyro.
"What? I won't tell anyone." promised Martin.
"I'm afraid of heights." said Keyro. "At least the high cliff drop-off type like that. I -- I couldn't do anything because I was too scared to do anything."
Martin's eyes went wide. "But -- but so was I!"
"Wrong." said Keyro. "You DID do something. You saved me. You were braver than me."
Martin's eyes went even wider. "I -- I was -- braver than you?!"
Keyro smiled and nodded. "And you saved my life."
As relief poured over both boys, Keyro started to giggle. Kneeling on the ground next to Martin as he did, it somehow became contagious. Finally Martin managed to snicker, "What's so funny?"
"Well," laughed Keyro, "I think we found where the edge of the woods is!"
That resulted in another round of laughter. Finally the two boys calmed down and slowly sat up. "You did save my life." said Keyro quietly. "Had I fallen, I'm not sure even I could have survived. I know one shows affection with a hug, but somehow that doesn't seem to be enough."
Martin smiled. "Well, there is one other thing. Have you ever heard of a kiss?"
Keyro thought about this. "I think I've seen them in some of the movies I've watched. But I've never really understood what they were for."
Martin leaned over and kissed Keyro. The boy looked stunned, then he grinned. "That was it? I -- liked that. Is it permissible to combine that with a hug?"
Martin giggled. "Of course."
Keyro reached over, hugged Martin, and gave him a kiss. "Thank you for saving me, Martin."
Martin was left briefly too stunned and happy to think of a response. Both boys clambered to their feet. "Boy, look at us!" commented Martin. "We're filthy disasters!"
"Still not dirty enough, if you ask me." proclaimed Keyro. "Wanna hit the mud hole on the way back?"
Martin shrugged. "Why not? I don't think it's going to make that much difference."
Keyro led the way safely back, avoiding the last known location of the snake, and even steering clear of the old cabin. His antennae twitched and sometimes even rotated. Before too long, they could themselves at the mud hole, and wasted little time in wrestling around and getting as utterly mud-covered as possible. The mud was thicker than usual, and it tended to pile up. Martin could tell his undershorts had slid off, yet somehow managed to retrieve them and toss them to one side for later cleaning. By the time they were finished, the two boys didn't look so much like two humanoid children as two very unfinished sculptures of brown clay that had somehow gained the ability to move on their own.
They finally decided they'd had about enough (for one thing, it was getting difficult to move), and gradually staggered their way over to the lake to wash off. It took a considerable period of time to get all of the mud, soot, dirt, grass, and assorted grime they'd gotten into! off of their bodies, but eventually, two clean boys emerged from the lake and started making their way carefully back to the tent-dome.
Davy and Jahv were waiting there when they arrived. "There you two are!" said Jahv. "Davy persuaded his mom to bake some cookies for a get-together with friends."
"Yeah, I just didn't tell her that some of thise friends aren't from this planet." added Davy.
"Sounds good!" announced Keyro. Martin enthusiastically agreed.
"Where've you two been all this time?" asked Davy. "I saw Martin arrive earlier today and then the two of you scoot off into the woods, but that was hours ago."
"Exploring the woods." replied Martin, putting his clothes back on that Keyro had brought out, along with towels for the two to dry off.
"More like exploring the mud hole -- again." said Jahv. "No offense, but you two are no great adventurers, so don't try to kid us."
"Really." said Davy, but not unkindly. "Exploring the woods. Sure."
Neither Davy nor Jahv quite understood the level of giggling that Martin and Keyro indulged in while everyone enjoyed the plate of freshly-baked cookies.