I am feeling marginally more together today - less full of grief and more interested in getting stuff done. I have some story ideas again, and feel like my brain could follow some programming logic again. Which is good, because I'm working on some paid work today.
My ankle is closer to healed - it only twinges when I use it wrong, now, and it looks like a perfectly normal ankle again (unless you look at the other one and realize that it should be knobbier to match). I plan to go to the gym this afternoon, and have an appointment in town afterwards.
Tasks for the day: one print, one other (mostly tea) order, some coding, and some running around. I also need to update the clearance page.
I have a new story up at Torn World - you can read and comment there or here:
Tomaress watched in envy as the baker with his cart handed out hot fried dough crusted in toasted sugar to the first form students from his expansive time crystal box. They tossed the treats from hand to hand, exclaiming over the heat and stuffing their mouths, then sucking in air to cool it as they swallowed. It was a treat for the class, for completing their spelling challenge with high scores, and he choked back tears to watch how much they enjoyed it without him, even though he had scored as well as any of them.
“Tomaress,” his teacher asked, crouching beside him where he sulked at his desk. “Don't you want one, too?”
“Yes,” he quavered. He lifted his heavy, welded-metal bracelet in explanation. “I can't eat things from time crystals.” The happy laughter of the other children seemed cruel.
At that moment, he hated his parents for being Slunai, for choosing to take the hard road to citizenship, rather than simply leaving their outdated religion behind on the Purist plains they came from. If they had just let him be tattooed, and eat from time crystal boxes, he could fit in better, and the others might pick him for their games without the teacher making them. Rimir had the ebony-dark skin of the Mayaloi and didn't look anything like her classmates, and Shlima was so newly a citizen, he still barely spoke the Empire tongue, but they both fit in better than he did – they were at least trying to fit in, and didn't have to wear the bracelet that substituted the tattoo that his parents were convinced would damage his soul. They could eat steaming hot treats from the baker's time crystal box.
His teacher made an apologetic noise, and patted his arm. “How about a piece of talf?” she offered, and Tomaress tried to be gracious in accepting it. It wasn't as much fun to eat, when he was the only one who had one. It was fun when everyone was drawing mustaches on themselves to lick off, and comparing dark tongues, but when he was the only one, it only made him feel weird and more out of place than ever.
The next tenday, when they did well on their spelling challenges again, the baker brought him a special fried dough that hadn't been in a time crystal box.
It was cold, and a little soggy. It didn't steam when ripped open, like the ones the others ate, and it tasted stale.
His teacher nudged him, to remind him to be grateful, and he dutifully thanked the baker.
When he went home that night, he begged his mother, “Why can't I get a tattoo? I don't want to be different. I want to be like the other children.”
His mother tried to hug him, but he squirmed away, dissatisfied. “If you do...” she started to explain, but Tomaress cut her off.
“I'd rather have a broken soul than no friends!” Tomaress wailed. “And no one else I go to school with is broken, and they eat hot food and religion is stupid and I want to be a full citizen and not wear a bracelet and not be different.”
She cried then, and Tomaress was humiliated to find that he cried, too, and his father yelled at both of them in their native tongue, and Tomaress spent a sleepless night wondering how his parents could believe something that no one else did, and whether he did, and what a soul was, anyway.
He was exhausted at school the next day, and did poorly at spelling, so they didn't make their goals and didn't earn a visit from the baker. He imagined that the grumbling was aimed at him, and covered his clunky citizenship bracelet with the opposite hand and slumped sullenly in his chair. The teacher, not oblivious to his discomfort, made a concerted effort to involve him in the classroom games, and after the bell released them to go home, called him in to talk.
“It isn't your fault,” she said, trying to help. “You're very good at the math.”
That didn't make Tomaress feel any better, though he knew it was supposed to. They didn't have bakery challenges in math.
“Do you need more home tutoring?” she offered. “How about your parents? Are you helping them practice Empire tongue?”
Twice a tenday, an Empire tutor who knew the Slunai tongue came to their house and taught them all Empire terms and helped his parents with any licensing questions they might have, or shopping or assimilation difficulties. “It's very important that we respect your culture,” his teacher emphasized. “Your beliefs are important to honor, and we try very hard to make sure you fit in.”
That only made Tomaress feel guilty – like he wasn't trying to fit in already. He couldn't give her any answers to make her feel better, and eventually, she ran out of rhetoric (rhetoric was one of their spelling words) and let him go, pressing a low-denomination necessity token into his hand like some kind of conciliation.
He walked home slowly – he had missed his usual cablecar, and the next one wouldn't come for another tentick or more. He could walk the distance in almost the same time it would take. He hated showing his bracelet those times that they were checking tattoos and licenses, anyway.
On his way, he passed a bakery, and paused at the next street corner. After a moment, he walked back in his tracks and went in.
The room smelled like hot, sweet things, and he watched the customer in front of him being served a crusty loaf out of a time crystal box. After only a second of hesitation, he went to the counter and pointed at one of the fried dough treats that he'd watched the other children eating with such pleasure. A baker – not the same one from the school - took his token and went through the careful safety ritual that opened the time crystal box. Tomaress took the bun reverently, and marveled in the heat of it. It stung his mouth when he took a bite, and he sucked in air to cool it quickly, almost choking on a bit of sugar that he tried to inhale.
Guilt waved over him.
Is this what breaking a soul felt like? Would demons steal him away now? Would he ever be able to pass a ghost road without dying? The hot pastry felt like a lump in his stomach, and he scurried out and down the street towards home again. The second bite was cool, and the third was as cold as the fried dough the baker had brought him specially the tenday before. He could not eat more than a bite of dinner that night for the weight of the guilt and the treat in his stomach. After his homewriting, he went straight to his room, and lay in bed, staring at the ceiling.
When his mother, baffled, came to tuck the blankets around him and put out the light, he burst into tears, and confessed everything to her.
“I-is my soul broken?” he asked, in real terror. He couldn't bring himself to not believe it, no matter how much he wanted to.
The pause she gave before answering betrayed her doubt. “It is only like being sick, or having a scratch,” she said. “You can get better from it.”
“Are the other children sick?” It didn't make sense to Tomaress, that only he would suffer, from something that everyone else did.
“Everyone is a little sick,” his mother said, gently. “And the gods protect innocence. If someone doesn't know not to do something, the gods can step in and protect them. It's only when we know better than to do something and do it anyway that they will let bad things happen.”
“If I told them, they'd know better, too?” It was a question, the way it came out of his mouth.
She considered that. “Only if they believed it,” she finally said. “And it can be very hard to make someone believe things.”
Tomaress could understand that. He wished his soul was something he could see and poke. He twisted the bracelet on his wrist. “I guess I want to believe,” he said reluctantly.
“Then you will,” his mother said, kissing his forehead. “And maybe I can get some sugar for the tenend and we can make homemade fried dough treats fresh for you.”
His stomach clenched. “I don't want any,” he said petulantly.
His mother paused in the doorway and gave a low chuckle. “I bet you will.”