Chapter 19:

Shared fears and broken dreams

The Journey

     He softly knocked on the door and waited for a response.Bookmark here

If he was going to try to climb the pillars, he had to first get someone to take care of Gray, so there he was, in front of Gian’s tent.Bookmark here

Of course, he could’ve asked Natta to look after him, but he didn’t trust her enough to do so. That meant that although it weighed a little on his conscience, this was his only option.Bookmark here

“W-who is it?” said a voice from the other side.Bookmark here

“It’s me, Nico.”Bookmark here

“Oh, Nico?” Gian said as he made the door slightly ajar and took a discrete peek at the outside, as if checking something. “Well, come in.”Bookmark here

“Thanks.”Bookmark here

He entered the place and Gian closed the door once again. It was dark inside the tent, without any kind of illumination at all. It wasn’t possible to see basically anything, to know what you’re stepping on, to know who was there. It was an almost claustrophobic feeling, as if he was imprisoned inside there.Bookmark here

I probably just woke him up…Bookmark here

He stood still at what he supposed was the middle of the tent, waiting.Bookmark here

“...Nico?” a voice whispered next to him.Bookmark here

Then, a small light appeared—a candle had been lit, and now he could finally see things.Bookmark here

“Nico!”Bookmark here

And right next to him, there was Rocco, who sat on the ground.Bookmark here

“Quite some time since I last saw you,” he said as he extended his hand to help Rocco get up.Bookmark here

“Yeah…”Bookmark here

It was good seeing the face of his friend once again but… There was something wrong.Bookmark here

His thin arms and legs, his tired face, the lack of the always present brightness in his eyes… It was so much that Nico couldn’t even begin to describe it. Even the smile he had on his face now had an odd look to it.Bookmark here

Everything about this was wrong, it wasn’t supposed to be like that.Bookmark here

“Anyways though… Dad, didn’t we run out of candles?”Bookmark here

“It was difficult but I found one,” Gian hurriedly answered. “Now, why did you come here, Nico?”Bookmark here

“Oh, right… So—”Bookmark here

“Hey! Gian!” a voice came from outside, accompanied by a knock on the door. “It’s me, Carl!”Bookmark here

Gian immediately reached for the door, and just like before, took a discrete peek at the outside before letting Carlo in.Bookmark here

“I brought some stuff for you. Take a look.”Bookmark here

He carried a small box in his hand and gave it to Gian.Bookmark here

“You’re our salvation in these trying times. Thanks, Carlo.”Bookmark here

“Friends help friends, right? No need to thank me.”Bookmark here

For what seems to be the first time in what must have been a long time, Gian cracked a smile. Bookmark here

“I seriously don’t know what I would do without you.” Bookmark here

After this brief interruption, he once more turned to Nico. “So, what was it?”Bookmark here

After coming here, he felt a little anxious about asking for this. Was it really fair to want a favor from someone who’s in such a dire situation? Did he really have the right to do this? Bookmark here

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No. Gian also was someone who had something to protect, wasn’t he? He would surely understand.Bookmark here

“...I won’t be able to take care of Gray while we are at the pillar, so I wanted to ask if any of you could look after him in the meantime between breakfast and dinner.”Bookmark here

Gian looked at him for a while, confused. “Why won’t you be able to?”Bookmark here

“I will climb the pillars.”Bookmark here

Gian’s expression darkened. Normally a child shouldn’t be doing this.Bookmark here

“Did you tell Gray this?”Bookmark here

“Yes.”Bookmark here

“Did he agree with it?”Bookmark here

Nico didn’t answer.Bookmark here

Gian let out a sigh.Bookmark here

“Look, you shouldn’t do this then, it will make him sad.”Bookmark here

Hey Gian…Bookmark here

“…do you think that by only standing still, without doing anything, things will be solved by themselves? Because climbing those pillars is the only thing I can do at the moment, even if Gray will get sad.”Bookmark here

For a moment, Gian stayed silent. He seemed to be at a loss of words, and when started to say something again, his voice was weak and somewhat trembling.Bookmark here

“N-no, I don’t…” he took a deep breath in before continuing, now back to normal. “But… It's not the only problem.”Bookmark here

He pointed to the back of the tent, where a woman—his wife—lay, at a certain distance from everyone else, as if they were avoiding coming close to her. Bookmark here

“She isn’t exactly in the best of states. She caught the plague too. Sorry but I can’t leave her here alone to take care of Gray.”Bookmark here

She seemed weak and frail. Her forehead was covered in sweat, and she was even skinnier than Gian; her breathing seemed dry and hoarse, and her eyes were heavy and seemed to always doze off between a few moments of seeming actually like she was there—somehow, she seemed even worse than Gray was.Bookmark here

She seems like she’s not going to— No, forget about it. Bookmark here

He didn’t want to even think about this.Bookmark here

Well, if they couldn’t go over to his tent to make sure Gray is well, there remained only an option…Bookmark here

“Then, what about bringing Gray here for a time? If it doesn’t bother you, that is. Would that be alright?”Bookmark here

He didn’t want to have to move him around even more than he has to all of the time, as it usually was very uncomfortable for Gray, but this was his best option at the moment.Bookmark here

“Oh and also, I will give—” Bookmark here

For a moment, his words faltered. He had thought a second time about what he was saying.Bookmark here

“…I will give enough food to feed him and an additional amount as thanks for taking care of him,” he whispered without facing Gian directly.Bookmark here

“…Alright. I will do it.”Bookmark here

“Thanks Gian.”Bookmark here

So, he now had only one thing to do.Bookmark here

He said “bye” to everyone and was heading out to get Gray and then go away to the pillars, but before he could reach the door, he was interrupted.Bookmark here

“Hey Nico, don’t you want to do something together?”Bookmark here

It was Rocco who reached for his shoulder and asked him. His eyes were trembling, and his movements seemed hurried, somewhat desperate.Bookmark here

“Sorry… But I have to climb the pillars, just like I said.”Bookmark here

Was he not paying attention?Bookmark here

“O-oh, makes sense…”Bookmark here

He retreated his hand, but maintained his smile, even if no matter how much Nico looked at it, it didn’t fit on Rocco right now.Bookmark here

“...Bye Nico.”Bookmark here

“Bye.”Bookmark here

———————————————————Bookmark here

He had taken Gray to Gian’s and now stood in front of the pillar, looking at its immense, overwhelming size.Bookmark here

So, he was finally going to do it.Bookmark here

A 14 year old doing this was highly unusual, as according to tradition only adults—those over 16—were supposed to climb the pillars, but this wasn’t much of an obstacle: most people would probably turn a blind eye to it considering his special situation at the moment, so it was only a minor bother.Bookmark here

But... Bookmark here

Normally, these exceptions only happened when those kids had for the most part lost all hope, when they thought there was no way out for them, when they felt like no one could really help them anymore. Bookmark here

Or, in other words, to some this would look like the same as admitting that he thought of Gray as practically dead, terminally ill to never recover.Bookmark here

Of course, he didn’t think like that—if he did so, he would have no reason to even try at all—but, even then… this weighed a little on his conscience.Bookmark here

He wondered what Gray thought of this in specific.Bookmark here

That said, despite whatever other thought of what he was doing, this was the only way.Bookmark here

It wasn’t like this was a bad thing to do either, right?Bookmark here

Near him, there were many other people, all distributed along some sort of a circle around the pillar, waiting for the start of the third wave’s climb to be announced.Bookmark here

One by one, the end of the ropes which were set up by the vanguard fell in front of them; each time one did so, the people grew more and more nervous and anxious. At the first few minutes of the climb there always weren’t enough ropes, so the competition to get one was harsh: if you were physically capable of climbing fast, having a headstart frequently equaled encountering a lot more things to gather.Bookmark here

And so, everyone looked like, at any moment, they would burst out running as fast as they could.Bookmark here

Then, a sound thundered and echoed in everyone’s ears.Bookmark here

“The third wave can start its climb!”Bookmark here

In a split second, he ran towards one of the ropes and got a hold of it. To his right, a man looked at him, seemingly bothered by the fact that a fourteen year old boy stole his opportunity. Immediately after attaching the rope to his belt, he started his climb as fast as he could.Bookmark here

At the start, it was admittedly pretty easy: the crystals weren’t very tall nor too steep and he was reasonably well rested. Quickly, he had risen a few dozen meters above the ground, and the people below looked like small miniatures to him. Bookmark here

———————————————————Bookmark here

“You really do look tired, huh?”Bookmark here

Gian was seated on the ground next to Gray. In his hand, he held a small mix of herbs Nico had given to him.Bookmark here

“Here, open your mouth and chew this… Good… good… yeah, that’s the spirit Gray.”Bookmark here

Gian felt a hot air touch his skin each time Gray breathed, and sweat from making contact with him covered his hand.Bookmark here

Nico had already left for the pillar, and Rocco had gone outside—to observe Nico as he climbed, according to him—so the only ones inside the tent were Gray, Carlo, Gian, his wife Marta, and his 6 year old daughter Maria.Bookmark here

Thanks to Carlo, who besides these herbs and many other things, gave him a few candles, they had some light there, even if he unconditionally refused to leave the door open.Bookmark here

“Hey Papa,” Maria called, poking his shoulder, “who is he?”Bookmark here

“Hm? Who?”
“This guy,” she said, pointing at Gray. “Nico’s father?”
This got a few chuckles out of him before he could even answer. “Yeah, I guess you could say that… Right, Gray?”Bookmark here

Gray’s tired eyes sent a look at him; they seemed heavy, as if there was something weighing on them.Bookmark here

“...I don’t have the right to be called like that.”Bookmark here

“But you sure look as if you were.”Bookmark here

“...”Bookmark here

“What, do you think you’re not deserving or something?”Bookmark here

Instead of answering directly, Gray rolled to the other side on the bedroll, facing to where Carlo was taking care of Marta.Bookmark here

“What about you? Do you think you’re doing a good job as a father?” he asked.Bookmark here

“Are you implying I’m not?”Bookmark here

“No, not really. I just figured that there’s a chance I might feel a bit better by knowing how things are on your end.”Bookmark here

Being a good father… What makes someone a good father?Bookmark here

Was it making sure your children are happy? Was it making sure they would grow up to become good people? Was it making sure they’re always safe, protected from any harm? Did a father need to be the most cautious of people? Or the one who would do anything and everything, no matter how risky, for his family? Bookmark here

“I… I’m not sure anymore.”Bookmark here

“Really? I always thought you were a great dad.”Bookmark here

He heard this, but Gray’s mouth hadn’t moved in the slightest.Bookmark here

“You really seem to care for your children like no one else does. Even in your circumstances you eat little so there’s enough for them, and although I’m not sure why you’re always in need of something, I’m sure it’s not your fault, right?”Bookmark here

Instead, it was Carlo who, while taking care of Marta for Gian, said these gentle cruel words.Bookmark here

Bookmark here

“On the contrary,” he muttered under his breath. Bookmark here

———————————————————Bookmark here

Flax, meat, cotton, vegetables, bread, even a clock.Bookmark here

Right now, all of those things were stored behind him in a basket he carried on his back as he climbed the pillar.Bookmark here

Even if he wasn’t exactly physically conditioned to do this, by trying to climb as fast as he could at the start he managed to get a good headway and gather a lot of stuff, but thanks to that, now he was getting increasingly tired. Bookmark here

Each time the stakes he held in his hands penetrated the crystals, it felt as if he had just punched a wall; each time he repeated that same movement of supporting himself on these stakes to move up, he felt his arms crumbling; each time he nearly fell and had to desperately hold on his rope to get back some sort of balance, the feeling of it sliding through his hand was almost as if they were burning, and the blue light coming from the crystals were making his eyes sick.Bookmark here

But.Bookmark here

But in these crystals, there was also something else.Bookmark here

A face, his own face, reflected there.Bookmark here

And every time he saw it, the stakes he held punched deeper, harder at the crystals, and his arms wanted to do more, to work harder.Bookmark here

This face’s mouth was shut, but he could hear it saying things.Bookmark here

This face was very different from the one he remembered his father having. It didn’t look like it belonged to his son.Bookmark here

But, maybe if he managed to get to the top, it would.Bookmark here

Only maybe.Bookmark here

And if it wasn’t for Gray, this face wouldn’t ever be able to even try to. Bookmark here

So, he had to. He had to make it happen, for Gray.Bookmark here

As he got higher and higher, if he ever looked down, he would see a pile of corpses at the distance down below, where the people were collectively leaving the dead bodies of their loved ones, killed by the plague. Bookmark here

Every time his feet moved against the crystals, it somewhat looked like they were stepping on them.Bookmark here

———————————————————Bookmark here

“But what about you, Gray?”Bookmark here

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“I… I—”Bookmark here

His words were interrupted by thunderous, harsh coughs, but even if they were loud and worrying, not a single drop of spittle reached Gian’s face, so dry they were.Bookmark here

“Water?” Gian offered him.Bookmark here

“Y-yeah, thanks.”Bookmark here

Gradually and with great care, he drank everything.Bookmark here

Gulp gulpBookmark here

“I don’t know… I’ve always thought I was just a regular dad, one that wanted to give a nice upbringing to his children, who wanted them to be happy, and who wanted to protect the honor of his family… But one day, before I realized it, it all came tumbling down—I had destroyed everything.”Bookmark here

Tic tacBookmark here

“...Now, thinking back at all of this, I guess that I never really knew what I was doing. I always just did what I was told to—what others thought would be the best option. It shouldn't be a surprise that when I finally tried to do things according to my own will, I ended up taking possibly one of the worst paths available… Theo— Cough ...Theo has all the right to be disappointed in me.”Bookmark here

Before he realized it, the tent had turned into something else, and staring accusingly at him was Theo. He was directly above him, and looked right into his eyes, deep into his soul.Bookmark here

Tic tacBookmark here

Time was running out, and instead of clearing his name, he only piled up new charges, one after the other, until the dim chance he once had would—if it hadn’t already—disappear entirely.Bookmark here

“...And then, things only got worse and worse. I had a duty, I had a need, I had something I should do… I had to protect Nico, to take care of the child Theo left in this world. I wanted him to be happy, I wanted to give back to him what the world had stolen. But… But—” Bookmark here

Word after word, as he spoke the faint traces of tears started to show, and his words became muddled in between sobs and coughs. His hands hardened their grip on the blankets, and his arms trembled ever so slightly.Bookmark here

“...Now… Now… Now I don’t have anything I can do to help him anymore, he pushes himself to his limits so he can help me, he… he… No kid should ever have the need to work to sustain what is basically a dead body. I have to somehow change this, I can’t let things be like that, but…” Bookmark here

From the other side of the tent, Carlo sent a look at Gian; the look in his eyes was clear: he should say something.Bookmark here

“You know… I think we might be very similar in this regard. So at the very least, know you’re not alone in this. Now, breathe in and out, everything is gonna be alright.”Bookmark here

...Bookmark here

“...Thanks” he said in what could barely be considered anything more than a murmur.Bookmark here

“No need to thank me.”Bookmark here

But even if he had calmed down, his eyes were wet and trembling, and he still felt pain in his heart.Bookmark here

“Hey… Do you think I still have enough time?”Bookmark here

Tic tacBookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.