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To Read Chapters 1 - 6, Go To: Deep Sky Stories and Illustrations.
Chapter 7 - The Stranger He Knew
Alex still remembered the dream that morning during breakfast and he nibbled half-heartedly at his cereal as he pondered it over and over again, staring off in a daydream. Mrs. Faraway noticed his glazed look and asked him if he had slept well.
"Yah… I slept fine, mom," he answered, not wanting her to worry. It was only a dream, after all. He thought again of Miss Vasquez as he heard the approaching school bus rumbling toward his house.
As he left to catch the bus, Alex also thought of the dark creature from the night before and wondered if that had been part of a dream as well. But no, unfortunately, it was just as real as Dart. He wondered if there was anything left of those black creatures after the Dragonfly and his companion had turned loose their awesome weaponry on them. He would have to wait until later to see that though as the bus rumbled near then creaked to a halt before him.
"Come-on up, young fella", the driver called in his friendly, carefree way, "we missed you yesterday." The bus was already quite full of chattering, laughing classmates as Alex boarded it and took a seat. Alex's house was the farthest one from the school so the bus began its return trip toward school after Alex got on.
But, they had no sooner gone another half mile along the gravel road when the bus, unexpectedly, came to a full stop again. It was a stop that had never been made before, and it was in such a strange area too. All the chattering stopped and the kids craned their heads and looked around curiously. The bus driver peered out the window of his door as well, then slowly pulled the lever and opened it. He looked out suspiciously at the new passenger who stood waiting patiently there.
What was so peculiar about the bus-stop was that it was not supposed to be one. The bus had stopped outside a fallen-down, rusty gate leading into the old scrapyard. The only evidence of any kind of dwelling was an old weather-worn shack. The old clap-board shelter sat alone, behind the gate and just off the shoulder the road. Its dry and paint-flaked boards were cracked and bleached from long years under the hot, beating rays of the sun. The shack even leaned precariously to one side, likely ready to fall over completely during the next windstorm. Creaking shutters hung listlessly in front of cracked and dusty windows and the wretched hovel had the appearance of having been abandoned for ages.
It was by all appearances, a desolate and dirty spot for someone to be waiting for a bus. Yet, up the steps and on board the bus came a girl that no one had seen before. The only thing Alex knew, from what little he saw of her was that she was about his age, maybe a year older and had slightly darker skin. She wore the strangest clothes too, he thought. Her clothes had a tanned, leather appearance, like buckskins, with bead-work woven into them in beautiful designs.
She said something like hello to the driver and sat down in the front with another girl. That girl glanced at her uncomfortably then looked again at the old shack with its darkened and broken windows. It didn't look at all like the friendly, country farmhouses that the other children lived in. The new girl seemed not to know or even understand that she was being openly stared at by a bus-load of very quiet and mystified people. Instead of blushing or looking down with embarrassment, she gazed calmly back at each person, with dark blue, rather Oriental eyes until they became nervous and looked away sheepishly.
Alex could only see the back of her head but from where he sat, she seemed to have a quiet confidence about her. The last, and perhaps the oddest part of the girl's clothing was a long mossy green and tan cloth which was wrapped firmly around her head like a turban, effectively covering all her hair.
The rest of the ride to school was uneventful, and once there, everyone filed off the bus at the front door. There was the usual chatter about this or that teacher and the piles of homework that they gave out, and then Alex heard someone mention Mr. Chater and the big geography test for that day. Alex stopped dead in his tracks. The test! Geography, his worst subject, and today was the day!
"Oh no," he breathed quietly. With all that had happened over the previous two days, Alex completely forgot to study for it. He felt a weak-kneed kind of panic overcoming him and he made shallow gasping sounds as he suddenly found it difficult to breathe properly. How could I have forgotten, he thought helplessly.
As Alex shuffled slowly through the front door, he tried vainly to remember at least a bit of the geography that Mr. Chater had taught over the last few months, but it only came back as disjointed memory-scraps. Alex took his seat, overwhelmed by an awful sense of doom. Geography was his worst subject, he hated it, and flunking this test would lower his marks below the usual A's and B's he'd worked so hard for.
Before he even knew what was happening, the five double-sided, stapled sheets of test-papers were being passed around and he took hold of it with both trembling hands. Alex felt a terrible dryness in his mouth and the horrible shallowness of breath came back even worse than before.
"Before we begin this exam students," Mr. Chater announced, "I would like you all to please greet your new classmate." Alex gave a start and looked up, suddenly recalling the unusual new girl. In fact, the moment he looked around, there she was, sitting right beside him in the outside row. Alex jumped and gave a startled yell. All the other kids went wide-eyed for a moment then broke out laughing.
"Quiet down, please - quiet", called Mr. Chater. "This is Rainah Onyahee", he continued, "and she has just moved to Delta from the far north. She is not yet accustomed to many things here so I want you all to make her feel at home and help her out whenever you can. There are also some things I am sure that she can teach all of us about the different way of life that she has come from."
All eyes were on the new girl now and many curious whispers were exchanged. A group of girls whispered among themselves and eyed Rainah suspiciously. She did look a bit strange, after all. Everyone, including Alex, had completely forgotten about the test and were dying to know more about Rainah. The first impression they had of her was that she was a bit smaller than them, rather pixie-like, and that she had lightly coffee-colored skin and slightly oriental features.
Beautifully colored beads hung in tassels and were woven here and there in her leather buckskin outfit in strangely hypnotic designs. Rainah's whole appearance and presence contrasted sharply with the room full of ordinary-looking country kids who had lived in the same small town all their lives.
To Alex, she looked small yet there was a strength and toughness in her appearance as if she had accepted and conquered many challenges for one so young. There was an air of quiet maturity about her and a look of authority in the way she held her head and looked people straight in the eye. This was no shy girl, as Alex had first thought. She looked across at him and, for one moment, Alex had the impression of a deep airy chasm between them; of a very different life having been lived by the strange, quiet new girl.
She did not smile, yet there was a stern, sharp friendliness and honesty that he saw in her Asian eyes only briefly as she turned away to face the front again. Mr. Chater continued, "Since Rainah has only just arrived here a few days ago, she will be exempted from taking the exam for this morning."
Alex was suddenly brought back to reality and stared down again at the stapled test sheets before him. The test began, and the usual group-hum and bustle was replaced by a heavy silence as pencils scribbled and heads were scratched thoughtfully. Alex had a good start but after only the fifth question, he just sat and stared in quiet desperation; he had no idea how next to proceed. The minutes ticked slowly by. Sometime between the last fifteen minutes and the finish though, something very odd happened to Alex.
A calmness and extra clarity of thought swept quietly through him. He breathed deeper than usual, and Alex began to remember things from days and weeks ago very, very clearly.
Then, Alex began to write down answers to questions that only moments before had been like a blank wall to him. He began to write swiftly - so swiftly, in fact, that the rest of the class soon took notice of the pencil that was vibrating and tapping so quickly as to be a blur before their eyes.
Mouths soon hung open and eyes bugged out with disbelief. Even Mr. Chater ceased his quiet reading and looked up with alarm. Not only was Alex's behavior very bizarre but so was his appearance. He looked half-asleep, his head was bowed and his eyes were barely open as if he was in a trance.
The end of the test arrived, much too quickly, with the timer-bell chiming and Alex dotting the last dot. It was over and Alex jerked his head up and his eyes shot open with horror. How long have I been asleep, he thought frantically! Then, he looked down and his eyes really got big. The pencil he had started the exam with lay beside the five test sheets, completely rounded down to a smooth stub. So was the second and third pencil beside it. The one he now held seemed only just to have stopped smoking because he could swear he smelled lightly burnt wood! And marvelously, his test was completely finished... didn't look half-bad either...
"Alex...?" Alex looked up and noticed Mr. Chater gazing at him with a mixture of wonder and - was that a touch of fear he saw in his eyes? It was then that he also felt surrounded by the other wide-eyed stares. All around him, jaws hung dumb and wide open.
"What?" he asked everyone at once. The school bell rang at that point however, and there were more than a few despairing cries from several children as they suddenly realized they’d stopped writing during those last few minutes to stare at Alex. With numb bewilderment, Alex quietly dropped his test on the teacher's desk and left the classroom for recess.
"That was awesome, Alex," a boy whispered in wonderment, "can you teach me how to write like that?"
"Like what?" said Alex, totally baffled by what he meant.
"Like... like... b-burr-r-r!" the boy answered, his lips vibrating like a motor while he pretended to write in the air at super speed.
"Like...you tell me," Alex chuckled, now completely confused by the question as he walked outside with the others. He wasn't sure at all what had happened but he felt as refreshed as though he’d just woken up from a restful sleep.
Try as he might, he couldn't remember anything that had occurred during the last ten minutes of that exam. There had been a feeling of complete calmness and serenity though, which he had never before felt. It was like he knew everything would be fine, even in the face of such a difficult test. Something had just helped him to relax, and then everything that he needed to recall came flooding back to him effortlessly.
The paradox of it was that, since he had woken up again, all that extra clarity and amazing recollection was now fading away. "Weird," Alex said to himself and tried to shrug it off. Anyone who was as desperate as he was would likely have done the same thing just to have something written down. Heck, he didn't even have time to check the pages that he handed in; it was probably all gibberish for all he knew.
"Really weird," he breathed. He said it this time though because he caught sight of the new girl. She was sitting all alone on a bench, watching some other girls playing jump-rope, with intense concentration. Alex noticed that the moss-colored cloth she wore wrapped round her head made her look rather boyish. It looked a little odd when compared with everyone else on the playground, but then, it was probably quite common where she came from.
Presently, one girl named Jessica walked up and asked Rainah if she wanted to play with them. After a little hesitation, Rainah got up and went to join them. They were still taking turns skipping and finally, it was Rainah's turn to try. But it soon became evident that she didn't seem to know what to do or even how to start. As the rope was spun round and round, Rainah just stood uncertainly, looking at it with a kind of quiet desperation.
She's never played that before, thought Alex, feeling suddenly quite sorry for her. She had a strained look on her face as she tried with all her might to understand what was, after all, a simple game for everyone else.
"Come on, Rainah," one of the girls yelled impatiently. They spun the rope and waited expectantly. Finally, with terrible anxiety written all over her face, Rainah walked slowly toward the rope. She attempted a little stiff hop and the expected happened as the rope came down and hit the back of her legs. She spun round, startled at that and some of the girls laughed harshly at her awkwardness. Alex set his jaw as a protective chivalry for Rainah filled his heart.
It's okay, just relax... relax, he thought kindly toward her. Rainah gave another start again, but this time it happened just before she turned, looked over her shoulder, and straight into his eyes. Alex gasped and took a step back like he had been slapped in the face. There was a little look of mischief in her eye as she turned back again to the challenge of the game.
The girls started again, but this time Rainah had a supple, readiness in her stance. The rope came down and began its upward spin again when she leaped like a cat, swift and sure inside the arc of it. The rope came back over and down and she jumped lightly up as it whipped beneath her.
"Way to go, Rainah," Jessica yelled. But that wasn't the end of it. Faster and faster the rope spun as the girls challenged her good-naturedly. But, try as they might, they couldn't catch her with the rope.
"Wow," some girls whispered as the minutes passed and still she remained, athletically skipping like none of the others could even hope to. The rope was a blur and it made a high-pitched whistle each time it whipped about her. Rainah looked like she was having the time of her life. She wore a smile of contentment and, wonder-of-wonders, her eyes were even closed like she didn't need them at all!
She skipped in perfect rhythm with the sound of the rope as it whizzed all around her like a small tornado. The tiny, colorful beads shook and rattled quietly in time with Rainah's moccasin-d feet as she leaped effortlessly.
A small crowd of kids had gathered to watch and cheer her on by the time the school bell finally rang, signaling the end of recess. By that time, the girls who were spinning the rope were completely exhausted and using muscles they didn't know they had before.
Rainah, on the other hand looked like she could have continued the pace far longer. It was an unnatural reversal of roles from the usual way that the game was played – not that they seemed to care – as they marveled at Rainah's prowess!
Reluctantly, they had to end the game and go inside. The audience of children finally broke up and ran back to their classes as well. The group of girls clapped and cheered with delight as Rainah finished with perfection.
As they finished though, the rope came up and around one last time and something unexpected happened. The rope caught on the knotted end of Rainah's turban and, as it flipped over her head, the cloth came off with it and fell to the ground. Alex caught his breath because he suddenly knew exactly who she was.
"Oh... hey... Rainah, who did your hair?” one girl asked, more than a little surprised.
"Your mom let you dye your hair?” another asked with envy in her voice.
"Well…” she began, but was saved further explanation by the need to return to class. Alex didn't need an explanation though because Rainah's hair completed who she was.
It was a shocking pure white and stood up in straight, fine quills about twelve inches long all over her head. They fanned outward above her ears and her sideburns, rather than growing downward as was the usual, fanned up and outward like small wings. The softer feathery hairs blended with the thick growth of stiffer hair-quills which crowned Rainah's head. She quickly bent down to retrieve her turban then looked up as Alex approached.
"I know who you are," he began quietly. "I had a dream last night and you were in it." Rainah gazed back at Alex as the dream come alive. There could be no mistaking those dark blue eyes either; the ancient wisdom of somewhere very far away flowed effortlessly from them.
She was quiet like that for some long moments then she answered, just as quietly, "please, we need your help, Alex. You will soon need ours as well." Even her voice sounded identical to the one in his dream, and Alex took a step back and shook his head, even more astonished.
"How can this be… who are you?"
"I will tell the rest to you after your school has ended," she said. "Oh... you and your friends are so very lucky",, she said with sudden longing. "How I wish that I had such a place as this." Rainah said those words as she gestured to his little school and the green fields of the playground where all the children had been chasing and playing only a few moments before.
“I am so alone and will always be so" she faltered, her voice dropping to barely a whisper. Then she remembered that they had to be back inside. "Come, we must join your friends now or Mr. Chatter will worry about you," she finished as she took his hand and led him back.
"That's Mr. Chater," Alex said, correcting her with a smile. They both laughed and, for a few moments, Rainah was just like all the other kids - without a care in the world. She tied her turban back on and then took Alex's hand and tugged him playfully as they ran, as new friends, back into the little schoolhouse.
Next: Chapter 8 - Night-Fall in the Scrapyard
As of 2017-03-19, Chapter 8 may be found at Deep Sky Stories.