Chapter 4: The Releasing Game
“The first one is the Releasing Game…” she’d said.
It was gonna be a long night.
I had a giant lump in my stomach. Yali had stopped me from stuffing myself too much, but it wasn’t about the food, anyway. I wanted to do what she wanted me to. But I just couldn’t.
The explanation had been simple enough. “I’m going to have you do a series of games,” she’d said. “Really, they’re mental exercises, but it’s more fun to call them games.”
“The first one is the Releasing Game, where you let your body feel whatever it wants to feel. The game is to let your anger run wild. Then once you’re fully angry, we can do the other games, like the Calming Game, where you try to bring yourself down again.”
I had let her go on with the explanation. If I had trouble getting mad for the games, Yali’d said, she could help me like she had in the ordeal we’ve just done. And there were a lot of variations of the games – there was the Controlling Game where you stay angry but just don’t do anything, the Expressing Game where you yell about things that don’t hurt anyone, and so on. The idea was, if I practiced doing these games enough, then I’d get better at controlling my emotions, even when I wasn’t doing the games on purpose. I listened to all of it and acted like I was interested, and I even asked her some questions about it. But I was only dragging it out. The longer the explanation went, the longer I could put off actually doing it.
But finally, I couldn’t think of any more questions. The time had come to get started. But…
“I can’t,” I moaned.
“What’s the matter? You know I’m always here to support you if –”
“I don’t know. It’s stupid.”
“Stupid is okay. Go on, say the stupid thing. We can find something smart to say later.”
“Okay. Okay,” I said. I didn’t want to admit it, but… “I… I can’t get angry. I’ll hurt someone.”
“You know this is an exercise, right? It’s not –”
“Of course I fuckin’ know,” I said glumly. “I just… I don’t believe it. I mean, I believe it, but I don’t really believe it. I mean –”
“You don’t believe it in your heart.”
Then Yali had gone quiet. And that’s where we were now. I was just slumped on her couch, fidgeting with the tail end of my shirt, feeling like shit.
While I sat, Yali idly started cleaning up our dirty dishes. And every now and then, she gave a long look back at me. She was probably thinking about how to help me with this. She was trying to help me! Why did she have to help me with something I should be able to just do?!
Gods, she was even doing something productive while I was just sitting there messing around with my shirt. I was being such an asshole. “I can help you with the dishes –”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Stern take it all.
When she was done, she came back and sat with me. She held my hand. I looked away from her.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she murmured. “Maybe I can help your heart believe what it needs to.”
“Of course you can,” I said bitterly.
“If you’re not ready, I can –”
“It’s not that, it’s just, why do you always have to help me with everything? Why can’t I be the one helping you sometimes?”
“You will be helping. You’re helping protect me from dying, which, which, which, if you don’t remember, would always happen if you weren’t the Blood Child…”
“It doesn’t feel that way.”
“We’re helping each other.”
“You know what, never mind, just do the thing. Make me believe the shit.”
“Okay.” Yali squeezed my hand. “You’re trying to tell yourself that the anger isn’t a real danger, so it’s okay. But I’d like you to try thinking about it as if it is real, but it’s a, a, an inherent part of the process. Like you give in to the danger for now, so you’ll be able to fight it better later. ‘Let me yield when I must yield, even if it costs my pride.’”
That was from a prayer to the Stern God. “Fuck the Stern,” I said automatically.
Yali looked uncomfortable. “Rinn, I know you hate the Stern, but I just can’t. It’s the Stern Temple that pays for me to live here.”
“Since when do the Stern pay for anything that helps anyone?!”
Yali gave me a dirty look. “The point is, it’s all part of one process. So, so, let’s say I had a car, and I wanted to keep the car in my garage forever. I was going to be an expert at keeping my car in the garage. And I didn’t even have a driver’s license.”
“Haha, that sounds pretty stupid.”
“Now one day, a thief comes along and steals the car. And we catch the thief, and, and, and everything’s in order, except now I have to get the car back into my garage, but I still don’t know how to drive. So, do you think I should have done anything differently?”
“Well, duh, of course you should’ve learned to drive.”
“But to do that, I’d have had to drive my car out of my garage at least once, and I want to be an expert at keeping my car in my garage, –”
“Well course you should drive your car out of your garage for practice, it’s not like it has to stay out of there forev– ohhhhhhhh.”
Yali smiled and waited for me to go on.
“So… it’s actually like learning to drive? Not that I’ve actually learned to drive, it’s not worth the effort, in most of the city you can go places faster by running than by driving, like I actually raced my parents once in their car and – but that’s not the point, it’s like, I’d be taking my anger out for a drive? That actually sounds kinda fun – no, I can’t! You could get hurt!”
“It’s okay if I get hurt a little. Remember, it’s part of the process.”
“Hmm.” Yali stopped and thought. “Well, you don’t have to hurt me. You can do other angry things if it makes you more comfortable.”
“If it makes me more comfortable?! Are you for serious right now?!”
“I, I, –”
“Oh my gods, you are serious, I – okay. Okay,” I tried to sort out my thoughts. “I don’t get it, but you’re clearly serious, so, I can – I – fine. We can do the thing. Wait, what do we actually do?”
“We start with the Releasing Game. Think of how you felt during the ordeal. Bring that feeling to the forefront of your mind…”
I tried. “I told you, it doesn’t work that way, it’s not happening right now…”
“That’s okay. I expected this. With you, we need a physical trigger. So, go sit in the chair again.”
“Ugh, I’m still sore from sitting there already!”
“Perfect! Keep complaining! Get angry about it! But also go do it.”
“FINE. I can’t believe you’re making me do this, you asshole – no, I don’t mean you’re actually an asshole –”
“It’s okay, keep going! Let the anger fill you, lash out however you feel like –”
I sat down in the chair. “Ugh, fuck, you asshole…” Even though she wasn’t officially forcing me this time, all those closed-in feelings came rushing back when I looked at the table that way again. Then, to make things worse, Yali pushed the wooden blocks in front of me. “Those FUCKING blocks!” I exploded. I grabbed one of them and pounded it on the table “I can’t BELIEVE you made me do this all day, you asshole, you complete, complete slimeball! You –” I swung the block up in the air, then hesitated.
“You can throw it at me if you want.” Yali raised her arms to cover her face. “I’m ready.”
I hadn’t thought I was going to do it, but I couldn’t resist. “Fuck! You!” I hurled it straight at her.
“Owww!” she yelled as the block bounced off her arm.
“Oh shit, I didn’t mean to –”
“I didn’t mean to say ‘ow’, I thought I was ready –”
“I’m sorry, I promise I won’t –”
“Don’t worry about that!” Yali leaned forward excitedly. “Now let’s do the Calming Game! Return to calm!”
“You want to be able to do that, right?”
“Well – that just wasn’t what I was expecting – okay, I get it –” Slowly, I sat up straight and forced my hands to relax. “Okay,” I said uncertainly. “But, I wasn’t exactly angry right then. That all went away when, uh,” I carefully kept my voice calm, “when, you know, uh...” My eyes lingered on her hurt arm. I was still feeling pretty weird about the whole hurting-Yali-is-part-of-the-process thing.
“And then you were worried instead of angry? It’s still a strong emotion. Still worth calming down from.” Yali took a close look at me. “Are you calm, or are you just acting that way?”
“That’s okay. You don’t have to get it perfect on the first try. In fact, acting calm is the way you do the Controlling Game, so that’s just a different type of success. Now, Releasing Game again!”
“You don’t have to throw things at me this time. You can throw them, uh, over there. At the couch.”
I grabbed a block. “Fuck you, couch! This is all your fault!” Yali snickered.
And so it went on. Releasing Game. Calming Game. Releasing Game. Controlling Game. Calming Game.. It went on and on, and it was exhausting. The sun had already set when we’d started, and now the night was dragging on later and later. I kept trying to actually calm myself down, but I never felt like I was doing more than just pretending. How was I even supposed to do that? What was I accomplishing here?
Finally, we were both too exhausted to go on. Yali told me I’d done a great job, but I still didn’t feel like I’d gotten anything done at all. Worse, when I got up to jog home as usual, it was just too overwhelming to think of. I ended up flopping on Yali’s couch that night. I went to sleep feeling weird, almost disoriented.
In the next week or so, we saw a lot of each other. Every time we hung out, we did some more of the “games”. I still didn’t really get it, but Yali was sure I was making progress, and I had to do something. Even if I wanted to procrastinate, we were on a clock – the Ravelling was just six weeks away. If I ever spent a week putting it off… Well. It could get us both killed. Nothing like a little fear of death to get me off my ass, haha.
At the same time, I was having that dream again. It was hard to remember, but it was like I was walking through the ruins of a gigantic city. And the sun… The sun, always high in the sky, warm and bright, pulsing like a heart. Every pulse filled me with its warmth, melting away all my worries and stress. It was funny – a lot of days I was going to bed tired or irritable from burning myself out doing the “games” a lot, but the dream practically wiped it all away. The more I had that dream, the more I woke up feeling like I was ready for anything.
After having the dream like half a dozen times, I thought of telling Yali about it. I told her all about the city and the sun and everything. As much as I could, anyway. Even for the parts I remembered, there was no way I could really get across how awesome it was.
“A bright sun that pulses like a heart…” Yali said thoughtfully. Then she cringed.
“Wait, is there something wrong with that!?”
“No, no, it’s, it’s, it’s… I think you might be dreaming of the Blood God’s world. Which is fine, I, I, –”
“Oh right, you died there once. I mean, one of the other Farseers died there and you have their –”
“– their memories, yes. So the memory feels the way the person felt when they were forming it. But, for, for you, it sounds like a good thing. I love how your face was lighting up when you were trying to explain the dream to me. That face, I think, that is, I, I…” she trailed off.
“That is what?”
“Why do you love me so much?” said Yali suddenly.
“Whaaaaaaat?! But there’s so much about you to love! Don’t tell me you don’t –”
Yali gave an embarrassed smile. “No, no, I, I mean, I’ve been meaning you to ask, I mean, it’s obvious that you do love me, but, but, wait, I don’t mean I’m insecure about it, but, I just want to understand, what is it about me? Like, what do you look for, in, in… someone?”
“How am I supposed to know that? I mean, you’re, like, sexy, and smart, and caring, but like, I don’t fall in love with everyone who’s sexy and smart and caring, it’s just one of those things, you know, –”
“Am I? Sexy, I mean. I –”
“I thought you just said you weren’t insecure about stuff!”
“Uh, I’m not. I don’t think I’m not sexy, I just didn’t think of myself that way. There’s a million things more important than being sexy. But what I mean is… since it’s subjective anyway… what makes someone sexy to you?”
“For me, I think it’s like… it’s about how you move? Like, whenever someone’s got that thing where they move so confidently, like they don’t care what anybody thinks, it’s like, woah. Even boys! Layo’s got it – I mean, he’s a boy, so I’m not really interested in him romantically, but I definitely think he’s hot.”
Yali smiled. “Does he know that?”
“Oh yeah, we joke about it all the time. He thinks I’m hot too. Of course, nothing’s gonna happen because I’m gay and he’s got his thing, but –”
“He’s not gay, he’s just decided not to date anyone until he’s older. No casual sex, either. I don’t get it, but it’s his own business.”
“Ah… Going back, you think I move confidently? I know it’s subjective, but I usually feel slow and clumsy, so, so, wait, that reminds me –”
“Well, I mean, actually one of the first times I noticed I was attracted to you was when you were, like, we were in class, and you were just sort of awkwardly getting out of a chair. Gods, I could watch you awkwardly get out of a chair all day. It’s just so, so –” Then I realized I had interrupted Yali, so I shut up. Yali didn’t say anything right away. “Er, were you gonna say something?”
“Yes… You know how you keep wanting to be able to help me somehow?”
“Well, I thought of something. Do you… do you know your way around the gym?”
“Well, yeah, I mean, I’d rather just run around outside instead of messing around inside a gym, but I know my way around, yeah. What about it?”
“In case you haven’t noticed… My body doesn’t work very well. I’m clumsy, I feel chilly all the time, I get awful period cramps, I bruise really easily... and some other things, too. It’s just so cliché for Farseers. You know, blind seers, frail oracles who sit around in their temples all day instead of getting any exercise? I’m just lucky I have 20-20 vision so I’m not a complete stereotype. And the thing I really can’t stand is, I kind of think the Waiting God wants it that way. Like it specifically picks people who are physically weak. So I, I, I really want to get in better shape. I guess it’s not as dramatic as how you’re going to be going against the Blood God, but, I, I just, I really don’t want to just do the Waiting God wants, too, I…” Yali trailed off.
I wasn’t quite sure what to say. Yali seemed a little more emotional than usual, so I wanted to sympathize. It would even make me feel better! It was so tiring to just keep grinding away at the “games”, I’d be glad to make a real emotional connection. But the problem was, I didn’t know what to sympathize with. It was obviously about more than just the physical thing, but what was the connection between defying the Blood God and defying the Waiting God? The Waiting God wasn’t bad, was it? Well, at least there was something I could say to be helpful. “I’ll totally show you around the gym if that’s what you want! I’d be happy to.”
Yali still looked sort of downcast. “Will you go with me… more than just once? I was thinking about why I don’t just go do it myself. I think… I don’t want to feel this way, but I think I’m worried that people will be judging me because I’m fat. But now it occurs to me that my life is more important than other people judging me. But…”
Now this I could make sense of. “Of course I’ll go with you! It’d be no big deal, really. Nobody will look at you funny when I’m around, I’ll beat them up.”
Yali smiled. “Please don’t actually beat anyone up for my sake.”
“Oh don’t worry, no one will mess with us in the first place, so I won’t have to.” Yali glared at me a little. “Okay, okay, fine, I won’t.”
“…thanks.” Yali sounded subdued, but somehow extra sincere.
“I still don’t feel like I’m doing anything,” I said, as we walked home from the gym one day.
“You are, and I greatly appreciate it.”
“What would it take for you to feel like you were doing something?”
“I don’t even know!”
Yali had picked out an exercise routine almost immediately. Stern take it, she’d probably looked it all up online before I even got involved. I didn’t end up doing much but standing around, keeping her company and spotting for her when she was using the weights. She didn’t even want to talk much – she always got quiet when she was concentrating on what she was doing, just methodically going through the motions.
While we walked, I tried to make conversation. “You’ve been working really hard. Aren’t you tired?”
“I am,” she said simply. Even now, she was walking along at a steady pace, not showing any sign of fatigue, even though she’d just been on the treadmill for half an hour too.
“You know you don’t have to be so stoic about it, right?” I said. “You can be like ‘Ow, my aching legs’ and then I can be like ‘I know right?’ and then –”
“Stop,” said Yali forcefully. I was surprised into silence. As we walked, I waited for her to explain, but she seemed lost in thought.
Finally, I figured she’d forgotten about it, and began, “Uh, what –”
Yali interrupted before I could even ask my question. When she spoke, she didn’t seem that upset from the outside – but compared to how she normally was, she was practically radiating discomfort. “I know I’m not, not, not good at expressing myself when I’m, I’m, when something hurts. But just… don’t. It’s, it’s easier this way.”
I had loads of questions, but I could tell it wasn’t the right time for them. “It’s okay, it’s okay, I can respect that. Contrary to popular belief, I sometimes know when to shut up.”
“Expressing Game,” said Yali.
We were hanging out at Yali’s house, running through the “games” again for the umpteenth time. I’d almost gotten used to it. I could pretty much do what she wanted for most of them – whenever she said “releasing game” now, I could sort of turn the anger back on from all the other times, as if it had been there the whole time and I’d just forgotten it. And then I could yell about it, or control myself, or whatever she wanted me to do with it. But how the fuck was I supposed to do the Calming Game? I couldn’t just be angry and then just not be angry. Even when we officially stopped doing the games, I was always tired and irritable afterwards. Yali seemed to think I would get there eventually, but number one, how the fuck?, and number two, how much time did she think we had? It hit me again every time I glanced at the date on my phone. It was October now. There was less than a month left until the Ravelling. We’d used up more than half our time, and I didn’t feel halfway prepared.
And now we were sitting here, doing the same thing that hadn’t worked for the last half-hour. Or maybe it hadn’t even been half an hour. Whatever. “Ugh, the Expressing Game is the hardest,” I complained.
“Oh? I thought letting you yell about things would give you an outlet.”
“Yeah, but, I mean, the more I yell, the more I want to do something, you know? It’s just so, argh –” I made a fist to demonstrate. “At least with the Controlling Game I can just not do anything…”
“Good to know...” Yali was lost in thought for a while. Then she spoke up as if she’d had an idea. “I’ve been using the Expressing Game when I wanted to give you a bit of a break –”
“– Stern take it all –”
“– but maybe I should use it as a bigger challenge instead. So, let’s try, let’s try… Yell at me as bitterly as you can, but don’t move at all. And, and, keep your hands open on the table.”
“Oh, fuck you!”
“Yeah, but with your hands open.”
I did what she said. Every time I yelled, it sent a wave through my body, making my hands want to clench, my body want to lean forward, jump up from the chair, anything. But I had to hold myself back. It was torture. Each word just exploded out of my mouth, leaving a lump of pain that piled up with all the others. If only I could just stop. Why did I keep making myself do this?
“Controlling Game,” Yali said finally. I slumped back in the chair as relief flooded through me. I didn’t even think about what I was supposed to do next, I was just glad it was over. After a little while, Yali continued, “Calming Game.”
“Yeah, yeah, I did it,” I said dully. “I’m not angry anymore.”
“Actually?” Yali perked up. She was excited about this. I wasn’t. I just felt drained. I mean, it was good, I guess. The anger was actually gone. It’s just that I’d been hoping to have some big epiphany or something. Not just this empty feeling.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Tell me more. What did it feel like?”
Explaining it to her just seemed like way too much. I’d already been dragged over the rocks, and now I was expected to give her a whole presentation about it? It was just way too much. “Can we call it a day?” I mumbled.
“Are you sure? We only just –” She cut herself off and waited for me to respond.
“...yeah, I’m sure.” It felt weird to hear myself say that. Normally I’d snap at someone who asked me that, like, ’course I’m sure, you think I would’ve said it if I wasn’t sure, huh?. Or since it was Yali, I’d have stopped and come up with something nice instead. But now… I just said it. Snapping back felt meaningless.
And Yali just accepted it, of course. We tried to find something fun to do instead, but my heart just wasn’t in it. Even the things I normally liked doing seemed sort of distant and pointless. I tried to make it work, and she could tell I was trying, that was the worst part. Eventually she suggested I should just go home and rest. I couldn’t think of anything better to do, so I did what she said.
That night, I even went to bed by my official bedtime. Probably blew Mom and Dad’s minds, but I wasn’t even really thinking about that. I just wanted the day to be over already.
There I was, leaning on the wall after school, staring at my phone. At an unanswered text from Yali.
Ugh, this wasn’t supposed to happen! Other people spent ages worrying about what to text to their girlfriends. Not me!
It wasn’t even anything weird, just normal making plans. But whenever I thought of talking to her, it just came back, that exhaustion from the Expressing Game. I just couldn’t see her today. But I wanted to see her! I loved her so much, it would just be stupid if I missed a chance to get together! Plus, if I didn’t answer the text, that would make me an asshole! If I wasn’t going to see her today, I should just tell her instead of screwing around. No, that was no good either, there was no way I would just not want to see her!
Ugh, I needed to talk to someone about this. But who? Yali was the only one who knew how to help me with my feelings! But I couldn’t ask her for help again! She was already helping me so much!
As soon as I thought that, I practically heard Yali’s voice echoing in my head, saying “It’s okay, the point is for me to help you.” Okay, fine, that was probably what I should do, but fuck that! Couldn’t I just chicken out of something once in a while? No way, I was Rinn Akatura, I never chickened out of anything! I –
If only there was someone else I could trust…
Then it hit me. “Trust… Layo,” she’d said.
Ugh, she’d planned for this. Even when I decided not to get help from Yali, I was still getting help from Yali to do it. Well, never mind that, there was no time to waste. I took off running.
A few minutes later, I had another problem: Where the fuck was Layo?
He hadn’t answered my message, and he wasn’t at any of the usual spots I’d find him at. I’d checked his locker, his last class of the day, and the club room for the club he sometimes volunteered with. I finally even ran to the corner behind the school where Pèi and Dehel usually hung out, even though Layo would never be there since he couldn’t stand being around them when they were smoking.
Well at least they were there. I ran up to them and asked, “Hey, where’s Layo?”
“I don’t know,” muttered Dehel.
“I do!” said Pèi cheerfully. Then she kept standing there with a smug look on her face.
Ugh, was it going to be one of those days? Pèi was hilarious, but she was kind of an asshole sometimes. “You gonna tell me?” I snapped.
“Maybe…” she teased.
“I’m not in the mood for fucking games right now!” I got right up in her face. “If you weren’t my friend, I’d smack you right now!”
“Oh no, I’m so scared.”
I stared at her.
On any other day, it would’ve gone on like this for a while. I would’ve kept getting madder, and Pèi would’ve kept finding more ways to be a smartass. Until she finally decided it would be funnier to tell me the answer than to keep going. But today… I could see it all coming, and I just thought, why?
What I’d been doing with Yali was practically a ritual now. Calming Game, I said to myself automatically. “Never mind, I’ll be fine either way,” I said out loud. But hey, the other part was automatic too. Releasing Game. “You fucking asshole, I could just smash your face in!” Calming Game. “Nah, I’m cool, I’m cool…”
“Uh, I think Rinn’s gone crazy,” said Pèi.
“We all knew it would happen eventually,” said Dehel sagely.
I stared at them both for a moment, then doubled over laughing.
What did it even mean anymore? If I could just… be calm, or be angry, just because I said so? Which one of them was real? Or maybe neither of them was real! I couldn’t stop laughing. It was all so unreal.
Maybe I shouldn’t have laughed so much right after running all over the place, because I was already breathing hard, and then suddenly I choked and started coughing my lungs out.
“You need some help there?” said Pèi awkwardly.
I caught my breath. “Nah, I’m good, this is the best, you’re all the best.” I grabbed both of them and hugged them. “I love you all.”
Pèi maneuvered her way out of the hug. “Layo’s in the art room. Er. You know. In case that matters.”
“Yeah, thanks, you’re the best.”
And then I took off again. My lungs were killing me, but I’d never let that stop me before, and I wasn’t about to start now. Pretty soon I flung open the art room door to find Layo and a few other kids hard at work.
Layo didn’t look up from his painting. “Hey Rinn. Stay three meters away from me at all times,” he said casually.
That was fair. I had maybe been too rambunctious around his paintings in the past.
“Yeah, yeah. But I, ehhhh… I need to talk to you about something. Like, in private.”
That got his attention. He looked up at me, then did a double take, then quickly put down his brush and stood up.
The girl next to him looked up from her work. “Yo, I’m not cleaning your shit up if you leave,” she said.
“I can owe you a huge favor. It’s important,” said Layo, glancing pointedly at me.
The girl sized us both up, then seemed to give in. “…I’m coming for that favor though.”
Layo made a heart sign with his fingers. “Thank you ever so much!” he said, before hurrying over to join me. He had such a charming way of talking sometimes, it was great. Probably got it from his dad.
On our way out, he asked me, “Shall we take a walk in the park?” I knew right away what park he meant. It was an old haunt of ours, where we’d often spent hours together back in middle school, although we hadn’t been there together in a while. And the paths were winding enough to give us a lot of privacy. If he was inviting me there, that meant he was treating this like serious business.
I glared at him. “How did you know it was that important?!? I could’ve been, I dunno, planning a surprise party or something! Then you’d be out a huge favor for nothing!”
Layo smiled. “I know you. You’ve had something on your mind for a while.”
“Oh yeah, since when?” I protested. Just because he was right didn’t mean he deserved to be right.
“I’ve noticed something different about you ever since, when was it, that day you asked me about what makes you angry. That didn’t seem like –”
“Are you fucking kidding me?!!! How do you do it? How does everyone know everything about me before I tell them?!”
“Er – if you’d rather – if you’d like me to –”
“Nah, you’re fine, let’s go to the park obviously.” I grabbed his hand and dragged him along with me.
The one nice thing about the fourth layer was how it had a lot of green space. You’d have a whole mess of blocky-ass buildings jammed next to each other, like near the school, but then right next to them there’d be a plot of trees as far as you could see. Maybe it was a bit like the Broken God’s world after all. Anyway, it was much nicer than down near my home.
We got to the park and picked a trail to walk along. There were technically more buildings pretty close on the other side, but there were just enough trees to make it feel like you were lost in the woods. Trees had always been a good compromise between me and the Layo – he liked nature, I liked climbing things, it was a perfect match.
I didn’t feel like climbing things today. Once we’d wandered out of sight of the streets for a while, I sat down on a weathered old wooden bench. Layo sat down beside me. I stared at my hands. We stayed that way for a long time. I had so much to tell him, but how would I even start?
After a while, I said, “Aren’t you gonna ask me what the deal is?”
“I know you’ll tell me when you’re ready.”
“Of course I’m ready, I, er. So,” I began. “I – I mean, Yali and me –” Really, how was I supposed to explain this? “We – it’s a huge mess – I mean, I don’t mean between the two of us, we’re great, I mean –” I swallowed. This wasn’t going how I wanted it to.
I swallowed and tried again. “We’re just – we’re just caught up in something, and we’re working, we’re both working so hard to make it work out, we’re working so hard, but I’m so, I mean, I know we’re getting somewhere, what we’re doing is important, but I’m just so, so tired. I’m so tired.”
I put my hand to my face, and it came away with tears.
“What the fuck is this?!?” I exploded. “I didn’t cry when – I mean, I didn’t cry at the worst part! Why am I crying now?”
“It’s okay,” murmured Layo. “I’m here. You can cry all you need to.” He had put his hands around my shoulders… So soft, so gentle…
“I don’t need to cry,” I complained. But there was no stopping it now. I sank into him, sobbing uncontrollably.
Slumped in his arms, I felt like all the tension was draining out of me. Even tension I didn’t know I’d had. It was so much different than being with Yali. I mean, I loved Yali to bits, but it was different. Layo was my oldest friend. Someone I could always just be myself around.
“When did you get so good at this?” I weakly demanded. “Since when do you know how to comfort people?”
Layo patiently rubbed my shoulders… Aaah… “The truth is, I do this for all my friends. It’s just different with you. You could say you’ve always been my one ‘fun friend’. We’ve –”
“I bet I’m fucking it up, aren’t I,” I moaned. “I’m supposed to be the fun friend and I’m just, I’m fucking it up.”
“Not at all! This is the least I can do.”
I sighed. “Okay, I guess I’d better tell you what’s going on before I make a mess of it. So, it started with…”
Once the words started pouring out of me, they didn’t stop. I told Layo everything. He listened attentively, letting me run through the whole story without stopping. Letting me pause to cry when it overwhelmed me.
“…and that’s where we are. I just can’t handle it. I mean, I can handle it. But I don’t want to. But – oh, you know what I mean.”
“I know. That’s a lot to have to handle,” he said gently. “You’ve got some heavy, heavy stuff on your back right now.”
“I know. It sucks.” I started fidgeting. I didn’t really know what to do with this whole thing of sitting around and feeling bad about stuff. “So what do I do now? Like what do I do.”
“It’s okay if at first you don’t know what to do. No one gets everything right the first time.”
“Yeah obviously, but I want to get this right the first time! You know, I kind of want to not die and stuff!” I wasn’t sure why I was exploding at Layo when he was only being nice, but I couldn’t help myself.
“It’s okay. It’s okay. I can help you think it through if you want.”
“Okay, go. Help me.”
“So, if I understand this right, you’ve been working hard, training yourself to think differently. And on the one hand, you want to keep going –”
“– but I caaaaan’t.”
“– but it’s come to a breaking point, and you can’t keep going on like this. Something needs to change. Now, that could be –”
“But I can’t just stop! What if we die because I didn’t keep at it?!”
“You don’t have to stop completely. But you can take a break. And the Waiting knows you deserve one.”
“Well of course I deserve a break! That’s not even a question, like, we both deserve for this to never have happened in the first place! But that doesn’t matter now, this is Yali! I have to do whatever it takes to protect her!”
“I understand. It’s good that you want to protect her. But you won’t be able to if –”
“Don’t you fucking dare tell me I have to take care of myself first! If I ever, ever let Yali get hurt because I didn’t try hard enough, I’d fucking, I’d rather die!” Saying those words made me flash back to when she’d made me promise not to die for her sake. Don’t you dare sacrifice yourself for me, she’d said. Ugh, why did I have to think of that promise? It wasn’t like it was going to actually come up, was it? Still, it made me add, sort of compulsively, “Okay, I’m not going to literally die, but that’s how I feel. So don’t say it.”
“What if resting was –”
“Okay. Okay. Er… what would Yali say if you said you wanted to take a break?”
“Oh, that’s easy, she’d be all like,” I mimicked Yali’s voice, “I completely understand. I’ve been expecting you to need a break, and in fact, I’ve already made a plan for how to make the best of it.”
Layo smiled. It took me a moment to realize what I just said.
“Screw you,” I said.
“I understand. It’s not the answer you wanted. But my dad always says, no one with a mission wants to stop and rest, but –”
“– but when it catches up to you, you’ll wish you rested,” I finished. Layo’s dad had loads of sayings like that. And… shit. It wasn’t wrong. All of a sudden I couldn’t stop myself thinking about how nice it would be to just give up and rest. It was like a tidal wave of relief crashing through me. But a small, terrified part of me still clawed against the wave. “But what if we die because I didn’t keep at it?” I repeated, weakly, desperate to convince myself to keep fighting.
Layo said softly, “What if you die because you burned yourself out?”
Shiiiiit. That was it. The tide of relief took me over completely. Anything I did could be a mistake, equally, so what did it even matter anymore? The terrified part of me was fighting itself in both directions until it felt… Meaningless. Broken. Maybe there was even a Broken God saying for this situation, but fuck if I knew. “I’m going to have to tell her that I can’t handle it,” I said morosely.
“You’re going to have to tell her that you’re human.”
“But I don’t waaaaaant to be human,” I mumbled into his chest. “I wanna be a badass who never needs any help with anything.”
“I love you so much, you know that, right?” I didn’t have to say “as a friend”. We both knew how it was.
“I know. I love you too.”
“I just love you so much, you make everything better. You’ve gone and solved my problem just like that. Wait, that’s right!” I jumped up and started dancing around the bench, grinning. “I’m just going to tell Yali I need a break! Problem solved!”
“What, did you think I was gonna stay all emotional and stuff? I bet that’s how it is with all your other friends, but nope –” I spun around and jumped up in the air. “I’m still Rinn Akatura, motherfucker!”
“Rinn!” said Layo. He sounded really serious, so I stopped and looked back at him. Then I saw that he was crying, too.
“What’s the deal, man?”
His voice broke. “I’ll miss you.”
“Come on, I’m not actually going to die! It’ll just be a few months, and then I’ll be back and I can tell you all about my awesome adventures in the Otherworld! It’ll be great!”
“I… I believe you. If anyone can do it, you can,” said Layo tentatively. “But it’s still going to be three months… and I won’t know… and, wherever you are, you’ll miss me, too, won’t you?”
“Aw stop it, you’re going to make me cry again!”
“I just thought… In case we don’t get a good chance to say goodbye later…”
With everything else that was going on, I hadn’t even thought about this stuff. But now that he mentioned it… I’d never not had Layo around. Maybe there’d been times when one of us was away for a week or two, but three months…? I ran back to him and I hugged him fiercely. “I am gonna miss you. I’m gonna miss you so much, I don’t know how I’m gonna handle it.”
“It’s okay. It’s okay,” Layo murmured. I could feel him shaking in my arms. My own tears flowed freely onto his shoulder again. It was all too real. So much too real.
With the talk of saying goodbye, I felt like I’d be losing him for good as soon as we parted ways. We clung to each other until the sun was going down and I was too hungry to be sad anymore. And even when we finally said goodbye, it still felt like we had so much more left to do together.
But at least I knew what I was doing again. I just had to see if I was really right about how Yali would react.