Ellena stood on the front porch of the little house, the one she had long come to call home, and breathed. She focused on her breaths, on how her lungs moved in her chest. It was interesting, and every once in a while she liked to stop and remember how exactly breathing felt. It was easier, anyway, than trying to be part of all the chattering and planning that was going on around her. She saw her mother frantically setting chairs around the tables as guests arrived, some tables still be arranged by frustrated hosts. Ellena watched it all and thought, momentarily, about running out into the woods behind the house and not coming back for an entire day.
“Can you go check the sandcakes in the oven, please, Ellena?” Glacia called from across the beach. She was helping move tables, clearly too busy to do such a thing as check the baking herself.
Ellena turned and walked into the house. It was warm and fragrant with all the baking that Glacia, Kara, and Sahm had been doing all morning. She ducked her head and looked into the fire. She grabbed a towel and pulled the sandcakes out and set them on the counter to cool. They were probably done, but Ellena hardly knew. She’d always been awful at baking.
She tossed the towel down next to the cakes and stared at them for a moment. She could feel the heat emanating from them, leaning slightly closer to warm her hands.
The house was dead quiet, which was nice in comparison to the madness of the party set-up that was happening on the beach. On the other hand, it made her nervous because she knew that the house was not empty. She held herself perfectly still and listened closely, her ear turned toward the back of the house.
Ellena sighed, hurrying around the counter and toward the back bedroom. The door was closed. She didn’t have to try it to know it was locked.
“Code word,” was his reply.
Ellena huffed. “You know it’s me. Just open the—”
“Code word.” His tone did not change. He sounded far away, too, like he was sitting in the far corner of the room.
She took her hand from the knob and rubbed her temples. “Athiadai,” she said, and waited.
A few seconds later, the doorknob rattled, then stopped. She waited a few more seconds before pushing the door open.
She was nearly knocked back by the heat of the room, which was saying something considering that the fire in the oven had warmed the entire house up considerably. Isaiah was, as she expected, sitting on the floor in the corner of his room. He watched her as she walked in and closed the door behind her, sitting down on his neatly-made bed.
“It’s really very comfortable, you know.”
“Don’t make me go out there,” he said.
He looked away and crossed his arms, rubbing his upper arms with his hands, like he was trying to keep himself warm. The wood floor right in front of where he was sitting was black, and slightly concave.
“Your mother has asked you not to light fires in your room without a fire pit. I can bring it to you.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Are you cold?” Ellena asked, though she knew that he wasn’t.
“Yes,” he replied.
She squinted her eyes and waited for a moment. He didn’t revoke what he’d said. “Are you testing me?” she asked.
“Then why are you lying to me?”
“Don’t make me turn out the fires.”
She sighed. “You know that I won’t, Sai. And stop telling me what to do.”
He held out his hand, palm up, and stared at her as he lit a fire in his palm. Ellena shifted her weight. She was already beginning to sweat. How could he possibly want it any warmer in this room?
“Why are there so many people here?”
“It’s Raechkirem. They’re throwing a big party. Your mother told you about it, don’t you remember?”
Isaiah had his eyes locked on the fire and said nothing.
“We used to celebrate it when you were a kid, too. You loved it back then.”
He shook his head. “No.”
She could see how tense he was. The longer she sat there, the more nervous and fidgety he grew. She let out a heavy breath and leaned forward on the bed, trying to catch his gaze. He was effectively avoiding it.
“I promise you that I’m not going to make you leave this room,” she said, emphasizing her every word.
There was a knock at the door. Isaiah jumped, the flame vanishing.
Ellena could see who it was immediately and she waited.
“Code word,” Isaiah said.
“Sai. It’s your father.”
Isaiah shot to his feet and rushed toward the door. He opened it and Baeou stood in the hallway. Ellena wasn’t surprised to find him looking only slightly less freaked out than Isaiah was.
“Why are you bringing all these people here?” Isaiah demanded, though he sounded more desperate than angry.
Baeou put a hand on his son’s shoulder and led him back toward the bed. He sat down next to Ellena, but Isaiah took a step away, refusing to sit.
“He hates the bed,” Ellena whispered.
“I’m wondering the same thing myself, Sai,” Baeou answered, a grin on his face. “It’s a lot, isn’t it?”
Isaiah put his fists against his fore head and began pacing, knocking against his skull with his knuckles. It was loud enough for Ellena to hear each clunck. She watched him pace, muttering to himself. He reminded her in so many ways of the little boy she’d known so many years ago. In other ways, he was entirely different, but it was the kind of different she knew was going happen. It hurt her to see him pacing like this, a child trapped in a young man’s body, but she’d known it was going to happen. Trauma like his wasn’t something people dealt well with.
“Your mom made sandcakes, Sai,” Baeou said. “You may not remember, but you really like them. You don’t even have to come outside. Just come into the living room with me. There won’t be any other people.”
“He doesn’t have to leave if he doesn’t want to,” Ellena snapped. She immediately knew she shouldn’t have, at least not so rudely, but she didn’t take it back.
“No, he doesn’t. But you need to walk around.”
Isaiah dropped his arms and stood still for a moment. Then he nodded. “Yeah.”
“You’ll walk with me?” Baeou asked, standing up.
“No people, though.”
“He doesn’t need to go on a walk,” Ellena said, keeping her voice quiet. “He needs to lay down on his bed.”
Baeou glanced at it, untouched for weeks. “His bed?”
“Yes,” Ellena said, looking into Isaiah’s eyes. For the first time that day, though, he looked at peace. “But…a few sandcakes never hurt anyone, either. Walk, Isaiah.”
“Do you like sandcakes?” he asked.
She smiled, thinking of the time when he was four and had tried to get his mother to teach him how to use the oven so that he could make sandcakes for Ellena because she loved them so much. “They’re my absolute favorite,” she replied.
His face changed, softened, in the way that it did when a normal person would smile. He hadn’t smiled in years, but he came awfully close to it occasionally. “We’ll go together,” he said, reaching a hand toward her.
She chuckled, taking his arm. “Yes we will.”