The pets in Mr. Reese’s Mysteries and Sentimentorium made a din at feeding time, all of them trying to catch Phi or Aula’s attention to be fed next, or to be fed again.
“It’s been a month, but I still find it weird,” said Phi, as he tipped pellets into the gladrador’s tray. It gleefully wagged its glossy, blond tail and lapped them up in a single mouthful.
“Find what weird?” asked Aula, sprinkling flakes into the f’wish bowl.
“The mood swings. I go from petting a gladrador and feeling pretty happy about my day, to scratching the belly of this exomniac who makes me really sleepy. Then I water the money tree and think it would be a brilliant idea to use my day’s wages to buy you some flowe–” Phi cut himself short.
“To buy me some what?”
“Nothing,” he murmured, with his face burning red. “Stupid taddletails,” he muttered angrily at the snakes as he trowelled food into their tray. He kicked at their cage. “Why did you make me say that?” he hissed at them. The taddletails stuck their tongues out in reply, and slithered hungrily to their food.
“I quite like the mood swings,” said Aula, letting the felicities peck seeds from her hands, before scattering them across the cage floor. “I sometimes forget just how many Emotions there are to feel, and what they’re all like. You can feel angry or sad, and nothing bad has to happen. Besides, if it all gets a bit much, I can just come and feed the felicities.” She skipped over to Phi and gave him a big hug.
“Watch it!” he snapped, as she knocked the food out of his hand. “Why don’t you mind what you’re doing?” He thrust the scoop back into the bag and grabbed some more pellets.
“Sorry,” muttered Aula. “I didn’t mean to.”
Phi took a deep breath and stepped back from a box of scowling rodents. He tried to get his Emotions back under control. “Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to snap. Guess the tiffs got to me.”
“Here. Let me,” she said, grabbing the food pellets from Phi and feeding them herself. “That wasn’t just the tiffs, was it? What’s wrong?”
“My father’s cancelled our fishing trip.”
“I’ve done everything he asks. I try hard at school. I got a job. What else does he want from me? He just wants me to be boring like his friends. Not even friends. ‘Business associates’.”
“Jeez. Will you stop going on about your father for once?” groaned Aula.
“I don’t talk about him that much!” said Phi.
“Only every waking moment!”
“Look. Just because your family’s all nice and idyllic doesn’t mean that mine is too.”
Aula scattered the last of the pellets into the tiff cage, then backed away from it.
“Sorry. That’s not what I meant,” she said, shaking off her Disagreeableness. “I mean, sometimes your father might not always know best. Don’t you think? He keeps telling you to worry about all these adult things. But you’re not an adult! You don’t want to be an adult. Adults spend all their time thinking with their heads about worthless things like money and taxes and insurance. We get to spend all day thinking with our hearts about things like fun!”
“You’re right,” said Phi with a grin. He grabbed one of the water bottles from the cages and squirted it in Aula’s face.
“Hey!” she laughed, seizing her own bottle.
They hid behind the shelves, shouting and laughing, spraying each other with the bottles until their hair stuck to their faces and their feet left squelchy footprints.
“If adults have to do all this work without having any fun, it’s no wonder they look so miserable all the time,” said Phi.
Aula wandered over to play with one of the taddletails, dangling a bit of ribbon in front of its nose. She waited there for a little while, lost in thought.
“We do have a lot of fun,” said Phi, clipping the food bag closed. “I’m glad.”
“Well you started it,” replied Aula. “If you hadn’t forced Mr. Reese to dance around the shop just to sell a dozen bottles of out-of-date Feelings, I probably would’ve thought you were just as boring as everyone else. Ever since that first day I think I’ve known…”
“Known what?” asked Phi hopefully. He stood behind her, trying to read her thoughts through the back of her head. Known that I like her? he wondered. Is it really that obvious?
“Known that…” She stepped back from the taddletails and jumped when she bumped into Phi standing right behind her.
Known that she likes me! Phi thought triumphantly. That’s it! Ha! I knew it!
He took her hand, twirled her around to face him, and planted a kiss squarely on her lips. It was both more awkward and more comfortable than he’d anticipated. On the one hand, he was suddenly far more aware of his mouth than he had ever been in his life. He had never appreciated just how clumsy it could be. On the other hand, their lips fit nicely together.
Aula jerked away from him. “What was that?” she snapped.
“It was a kiss,” said Phi uncertainly. At least I hope it was a kiss. That’s how they’re done…right…?
“I know what it was. What made you think you could do it?”
“Because you like, me, right?” asserted Phi. “That’s what you were about to tell me!”
“That’s not the point! You didn’t ask if you could kiss me. My ma’s always told me that a kiss is a very powerful thing. When someone kisses you, when they really kiss you, they put their whole heart, their soul, their everything into it. And you have to be careful with your everything. Everybody knows that! When you kiss someone, you’re sharing your life with them. So you have to ask first.”
“But you were just about to tell me you like me, weren’t you?”
“Doesn’t matter. You have to ask.” She stared sternly at Phi. Her eyes told him she was waiting for something. “Well?”
“Well what? I’m sorry?” he said hopefully. Apologising was usually the correct thing to do with Aula, he found.
“Well are you going to stand there gaping like a f’wish, or are you going to ask if you can kiss me?”
“What sort of weird girl trick is this?” he asked, his eyes narrowed.
“No trick,” she insisted, with her arms folded. “Just the Proper Way. I told you: kisses are important.”
“I feel like I need to seek legal advice,” he joked (it was something his father’s business associates tended to laugh at).
Aula rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said, “will you kiss me?”
“Of course! I thought I already did!”
She leaned in close and kissed him. They stood there in the window, sharing what Aula would later refer to as their Proper First Kiss, while Phi’s utter Confusion and the world around them dissolved like sherbet into a sweet fizzle.
“Ahem!” came a cough.
Mr. Reese was conspicuously inspecting the pet cages.
“Not been sniffing at the Love bottles, I hope?” he asked them.
“As if she’d need to,” said Phi with a cocky grin.
Mr. Reese sighed. “Good luck with him,” he said to Aula. “Right! Back to work with you! I’m not paying you to smooch in the window. You’ll scare off all the customers! Or – on second thought – maybe it’s good advertising…”
“I’m going to tidy your lab,” said Aula shortly, marching off to the back of the shop.
“Don’t touch anything orange!” yelled Mr. Reese after her.
“Heh. I knew I was paying her for something,” chuckled Mr. Reese. He looked at Phi and said, “But what am I paying you for?”
“I’ll tell you when you pay me.”
“Touché,” conceded the old man, “but you can still make yourself useful and move somethin’ from one shelf to another, or whatever it is you normally do.”
“Normally whatever Aula tells me to do.”
“Maybe there’s hope for you yet!” chuckled Mr. Reese, hobbling off.
Dark clouds rolled in over the following days. The sun passed in and out of the clouds, like an indecisive shopper ducking in and out of the changing rooms. It had been a slow day at work. Some of the town kids had come in to pet the animals. Phi would sometimes let them do the feeding. The odd customer stopped by for a bottle of this or that. Aula liked to ask what they were buying their Feelings for. Astonishment for a surprise party; Patience to help with fishing; Courage for an exam. A lady came in to purchase a dozen vials of Anger, but told Aula to mind her own business, and stormed out of the shop with her purchase. The rest of the day was filled with the normal chores of box stacking, bottle labelling, and occasionally running into the lab following a particularly large explosion.
Phi was now becoming quite adept at fixing the over-worked Feeling pump in Mr. Reese’s laboratory. The poor pump was used every time Mr. Reese had one of his “miscalculations”. This happened several times a day, and the pump often broke from over-use. Phi derived a secret pleasure in fixing it, and getting his hands dirty with the sort of work that his father abhorred so much.
With increasing frequency, Aula had to fetch the window-cleaning equipment to scrub yet more graffiti off the shop window.
I OWN MY FEELINGS was the latest tag to appear.
“It’s not even a catchy slogan,” Phi said as Aula scrubbed.
“I’ll bet it was city boys,” grumbled Mr. Reese, shaking his head. “Entitled bunch o’ good-for-nothin’s. Think they’re so high ‘n’ mighty just ‘cause they don’t even need the Factory. Only city boys’d listen to someone as mad as the Regent.”
Phi had once asked Mr. Reese just what he was grumbling about, and the reply was an hour-long rant about something to do with politics and the Capital and the Regent, and the country not being like it used to. Phi lost interest immediately, and learnt to not ask any more questions.
When they weren’t doing any particular chores, Phi and Aula spent the rest of their time re-learning how to be with one another. For some reason, kissing meant that you no longer remembered how to stand nearby, or even look at each other without grinning like a lunatic. A favourite flower suddenly seemed undoubtedly important, and a disliked colour even more so. They tried to know everything about one another, mistaking trivial facts for the deepest insights.
By the time they left Mr. Reese to close up the shop, the rainclouds had swollen deep and dark, casting the city into a murky twilight. The air tasted of humidity. All but the most determined of shoppers had abandoned the high street in anticipation of the impending downpour.
“Hey! Aula!” came a call from somewhere up the cliffs. Aula spun to see her friend Zak on the road above. He was running up the hill with some other friends. “Come up! It’s gonna rain!”
“Okay!” she called back. “See you topside!” She began skipping towards the residential district. “Are you coming?” she called back to Phi.
“Of course!” he called back, chasing after Aula and her attractive, life-long friend. Is he attractive? Maybe in a silly muscular kind of way…
They huffed and panted their way up the cliff, past the occasional beast of burden hauling its owner up the road, and they were soon traipsing across the Clifftop Fields towards the Rain Forest.
The Rain Forest was oddly inconspicuous for a forest. The uninitiated would stare into the distance, seeing only the gradual thinning of the Clifftop Fields into the rocky desert of the Long Plains. The particularly observant might spot a shapeless glint as they moved their head from side to side.
Zak and his friends were waiting. No one spoke. The air was heavy and brooding, and felt like it might just stay that way if you weren’t careful. The small group was silhouetted, motionless, against the dark sky and endless plains, as if they stood at the edge of the world.
With an explosive splash, a sheet of rain sluiced from the sky. The blanket of water smothered the landscape, and the Rain Forest burst into view. Trees outlined in rainy spray sprouted from nowhere. They looked to be made of water, fountaining from the ground into ghostly, spindly forms. In reality, the forest was composed of impossibly thin glassy trees that bloomed into view in the spatter of a revealing downpour. It stretched for miles, forming a barrier between Marsy and the Plains beyond. A number of other townsfolk had gathered at various points along the forest to watch it turn. Children danced in the rain. A photographer struggled to protect his equipment from the torrential rain as he tried to capture the forest on film.
Most children – at the behest of their parents – simply played at the forest’s edge, rather than dare enter it. Entering the Rain Forest could be dangerous business. Even when it was raining, there was a moderate danger that you might cut yourself on the razor-edged glass branches, but when it stopped raining, the forest was once again invisible, and finding your way out became a matter of life and death. Local firemen stood by with a hose and axes to rescue anyone who got stranded, which invariably happened every time it rained. They waited stoically, rolling their eyes as Zak and his friends bounded into the forest, slinging rotten fruit at one another.
They liked to split into teams and defend outposts from one another. Everyone had a basket of old fruit from the market. Their foul-smelling missiles would usually hit the upper branches and shower the target in rotten juice, which would be washed away by the rain.
Aula grabbed Phi by the hand and they splashed into the forest, where the trees let off oodles of Wonder and Phi spun in Awe to see the effervescent forest fountaining around him. Aula dragged him over to Zak and her other friends, who were shouting and laughing as they soaked each other in putrid fruit juice.
“Zak!” she called out, waving.
Zak waved back slowly, squinting through the rain.
“Who’s this?” he asked flatly.
“This is Phi!” said Aula. “He’s the boy I’ve been telling you about! Phi, this is Zak. You know, my best friend from next door.”
“Would we say best friend?” asked Phi.
“Oh don’t be silly,” she said, giving him a nudge and an embarrassed smile.
“Hi,” said Phi, extending his hand to Zak.
“He can’t join in,” Zak said definitively, speaking only to Aula. He didn’t shake Phi’s hand.
“What do you mean?” she asked hotly.
Zak frowned at Phi, like he was a stubborn stain. “I mean: he can’t join in.”
“Why not?” protested Aula.
“He’d make the teams odd.”
“They’re already odd!”
“Don’t matter. He can’t join.”
“I see,” said Phi knowingly. “You’re jealous!”
“Ha! Jealous? Of you?” spat Zak. “Who even are you? I’ve lived next to Aula all our lives. I’m her best friend. You’re just some guy she sees at work.”
“Zak!” snapped Aula, “What’s wrong with you? Phi’s my friend. I want him to play.”
“I don’t,” shrugged Zak.
“Okay, okay,” interjected Phi. “You don’t know me. I get it. What if I can prove myself?” he suggested happily.
“Prove yourself how?” asked Zak slowly.
“Dunno. What if I race someone?”
Zak considered this. A slow smile crept across his face. “Okay,” he smirked, “you can race someone. Whoever wins gets to stay. Whoever loses has to go home. Deal?”
“Deal,” said Phi, extending his hand again.
“And I get to pick who you race,” added Zak.
This time Zak shook Phi’s hand in both of his. “Looks like we’ve got a race!” yelled Zak to the others, who stopped hurling their fruit and trickled out of the Rain Forest.
They all lined up. Zak paced up and down the line, making a show of deliberation. The others shifted impatiently, shivering in the pervasive rain.
“Someone needs to race Phi. Whoever wins gets to stay. Whoever loses has to go home,” announced Zak as he paced.
“I can beat ‘im!”
“Doesn’t look as fast as me!”
Zak ignored them. “You’ll race to the Plains and back. First one out of the Rain Forest wins.”
“Yeah, I get it,” said Phi impatiently. “Who am I racing?”
“You’ll be racing…Aula.”
“Don’t be daft,” said Aula shortly. “What’s the point in one of us staying?”
“Those are the rules,” said Zak with a shrug. “Phi agreed to them. Take it or leave it.”
“Fine,” said Phi, before Aula could protest. “I’m in.”
Zak’s smile wavered. This clearly wasn’t the answer he was expecting.
“What are you doing?” hissed Aula.
Phi turned and whispered to her, “Look, it’s not about staying and playing. I don’t want to play with this lot.”
“Hey! They’re my friends!”
“I know. But I want to show them I could have played if I wanted to. I’ll just win, and then we can go.”
“Oh, you’ll just win, will you?” said Aula.
“I’m the fastest in my class,” said Phi simply.
“Yeah?” asked Aula indignantly. “Fine!” she announced to Zak. “We’ll race.”
A cheer erupted from Zak’s friends, and they gathered around the starting line as the contestants took their marks. The spectral trees thrust themselves intrusively across their path. An aquatic obstacle course of spindly limbs stretched out in front of them, creating a spattery mist that made Phi squint.
“Ready?” asked Zak.
Lightning streaked through the sky. The thunder roared through the earth.
Phi looked over at Aula. The rain had plastered her hair and clothes to her. She looked focused. She didn’t seem to have noticed she was drenched through. A shiver ran down his spine as the cold seeped to his bones.
Aula was off like a shot. Phi was caught unawares by her speed. She nimbly ducked and weaved through the web of glassy trees. He ran hard to catch up, nicking himself on several branches as he barrelled through the forest. Aula was fast. Really fast. Her hair flowed out behind her as she skidded under a branch, and then hopped over the next. Phi marvelled at her agility as the Forest’s Wonder seeped into his pores. He tried to run faster still. The Plains were quickly approaching, and before he knew it, he was suddenly in the open, standing on the rocky flats of the Long Plains. He had no time to marvel at their sheer expanse; Aula had already dived back into the Forest.
There was something different about the return, but it took Phi a few moments to decide what it was. The sky was lighter. The rain that had been coming down in sheets was now more of a shower. The trees were losing their definition. Phi winced as an invisible branch grazed its way across his arm. Aula had slowed down now. This was his chance to overtake! Phi ploughed on, squinting hard to make out the fuzzy rain shapes and dodging only at last minute to avoid the blood-hungry trees. He’d lost Aula from the side of his vision. He was in the lead! The sky was getting light, and the rain was easing off. The forest was vanishing before his very eyes. Just twenty more paces or so until the finish line.
They were cheering his name! He ran onwards to victory, now also racing against the changing weather and the disappearing forest.
“Phi!” they called.
He erupted from the Rain Forest with a dramatic dive. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun. He tumbled on the muddy ground and slid to a stop. He’d done it! He got to his feet. They were cheering for him!
“I told you I could win,” he said smugly to Zak.
“Why didn’t you stop, you idiot? We were shouting at you! Are you deaf or what?” Zak snapped.
Instead of surrounding him and showering him with praise, the others pressed themselves right up against the edge of the Rain Forest, getting as close as they dared to the invisible trees. There was Aula. She stood perfectly still, just ten short paces from everyone. She looked so alone, standing petrified in her invisible prison. The trees had completely vanished now. She hunched her damp shoulders against the cold, and blew her bedraggled hair out of her face. She was covered in mud from head to toe.
“Thanks a lot, Phi!” she snapped.
“I…I…” he stammered.
“It’s fine. I know why you didn’t help me up. You were too busy showing off.”
“I wasn’t…I…Shall I get the firemen?”
“Zak’s already gone,” piped up a boy stained orange with mandarin juice.
“What can I do?” asked Phi.
“You can go away,” said Aula shortly, crossing her arms, and then wincing as she caught one of them on a branch.
Phi stood by helplessly as the two firemen begrudgingly trundled over.
“You really shouldn’t play in the Rain Forest,” said the taller one in the laboured, half-hearted kind of way that betrayed a thousand unheeded warnings. The short fireman grunted in agreement as he dragged his water pump through the mud. He lit a cigarette and heaved on the handle. They let Zak aim the nozzle at the Rain Forest, and a jet of water sputtered itself out the end. A splash of tree materialised for a split second, then disappeared again. Aula carefully began to pick her way towards them.
“Can I help?” Phi asked, grabbing at the pump.
“Get off!” snapped the fireman, slapping Phi’s hand away.
Phi just stood by helplessly, not really knowing what to do with his hands.
“You can help by leaving,” jeered Zak.
“I’m not leaving.”
“I don’t want you here!” shouted Aula as she inched her way through the invisible Forest.
Phi refused to move. He stood there, shivering as Aula shivered, while she slowly worked her way out of the Forest. When Aula was finally free, Zak threw a blanket over her and hugged her warm.
“Are you all right?” asked Phi, as Zak guided her towards town.
“I don’t want to speak to you,” she said.
“Shall I run ahead and make some hot tea for you?” he offered.
see you in work tomorrow,” she said, walking briskly away with Zak by her side.
Phi followed them home, several paces back. He watched Aula disappear into her
house and stood there, shivering in the cold, wondering where exactly he’d gone