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When Komo Gabara was only four years old, his father had drowned in the ocean.
Until that day, the boy had lived a humble, peaceful life in the seaside town of Sandcreston, with his mother Naomi, and his father Ken, who provided for the family as a fisherman.
Unfortunately for the Gabaras, an unexpected storm had wracked the seas one day, and Ken’s boat was completely wrecked by the powerful roiling waves. Not having brought a life-jacket, Ken Gabara did not safely make it back to land.
Komo was still quite young when his father had passed away, and so could not easily recall the specific details of the day of Ken’s funeral, or when the townspeople came by to offer their condolences to the distraught, recently-widowed Naomi.
As the years went by, Komo came to realize that his father was nowhere to be found, and he thought it quite odd that many boys and girls he knew had fathers of their own. Whenever he asked his mother about where he was, she always gave the same reply, no matter how often her son asked.
“Your father has returned to the sea.” Naomi could not bring herself to trouble her son with the harsh truth, so that was all she could ever say in response to the question.
Initially, Komo was unsure what exactly his mother meant by that, but eventually concluded that someplace in the vast blue ocean, his father was there. Such an assumption was technically not incorrect, but the naïve and hopeful boy was under the impression that Ken Gabara was still alive, though residing someplace deep underwater.
A few weeks after he had turned eight years old, Komo made a personal vow to begin searching for his father in the ocean, hoping to meet him again. He headed to the beach one afternoon and walked into the shore until he was waist-deep in seawater, the waves pushing against his body.
No sign of father yet, he thought to himself, and decided to trek further.
As he did so, the salty water started making its way up his body, until it came up to his eyes. At this point, Komo realized something was amiss; underwater, there was no air to breathe, and he did not at all enjoy the sensation of being unable to breathe.
“Help! Help!” As determined as Komo was to accomplish his personal mission, he had not quite mastered the art of swimming. He thrashed about in the water in a frenzy, until he was pulled back to the safety of dry land.
“Komo! What were you doing in there?!” Naomi had spotted her son flailing in the sea in the nick of time, and had dragged him back to the shore.
The purple-haired boy replied once he was able to catch his breath and cease coughing. “I wanted to go out and search for Dad in the sea!”
Naomi scowled, puzzled. “What are you talking about?!”
“I thought you said he returned to the sea!” Komo explained.
Silently, the woman cursed herself for creating such a foolish lie. “Don’t you know how dangerous the sea is when you can’t swim?” she warned her son.
Komo responded with a blank stare.
“I want you to promise me you won’t try going into the sea again until you learn how to swim,” continued his mother.
“When will I learn how?” Komo asked.
“I will help you learn how, when you are eleven years old. That’s my promise to you,” declared Naomi.
And with that, Komo reluctantly left his ambitions to rest until the day of his eleventh birthday.
With a silent apology to his father, Komo began his long wait.
Ever since that day, Naomi began to have certain nightmares in her sleep. They did not occur every night, but when they did, they invariably involved Komo and Ken, the two most important people in her life. Whatever happened in these dreams, they always ended with the two Gabara men drowning in the sea, their screams ringing hauntingly as she was forced to see them sinking into the dark depths, never to return.
These recurring elements in her dreams began to worry the woman. What if this was some kind of sign, or premonition of things to come? Would Komo not be safe until he was taken as far from the ocean as possible?
Eventually, Naomi realized she needed to make some plans of her own.
Some days after Komo’s ninth birthday, an entry-level position had opened up in one of the local restaurants, which Naomi had applied for as soon as she had heard. Once it was confirmed that the position was hers, she was understandably overjoyed.
“That’s so great, Mom!” Komo gave his mother a congratulatory hug, tight and binding.
Naomi smiled. “Thank you, my son. But don’t forget, I have to work for most of the day, so you’ll have to walk to school and home on your own, okay?”
“No problem!” Komo enthused. “I’m nine now, I’m not a little kid anymore!”
“And remember what I told you about the sea!” continued the woman.
“Not until I turn eleven…” the boy recited, as though he was repeating it for the thousandth time. Still, Komo kept patience in his heart. Surely two more years would not be too long to wait?
Naomi worked for many hours each day in the restaurant, cleaning tables, taking customer orders, and bringing the food to the hungry patrons who would come in; some among them regulars who enjoyed the food and atmosphere of the place, others simply tourists drawn to the uniqueness of the seaside town.
For six days of the week she worked, and did not come home until the evening, where Komo would be waiting for her… or more likely, waiting for her to get dinner started.
For the boy, there was at least some silver lining to this new way of life however. On most occasions, Naomi was allowed to bring back something from the restaurant for their dinner – fried fish and noodles made Komo quite happy and well-fed.
The boy also found that he enjoyed the independence of going to and from school; as long as he was on time where he needed to be, he could take whatever route he pleased, and even hang out at his friends’ houses, provided he was home before his mother.
This arrangement carried on for a little under two years more – until a week before Komo’s eleventh birthday.
The day began without any obvious changes from the ordinary; school had ended, and Komo was walking with his two best friends, Eddy Banks and Maria Springston.
“Hey Komo, let’s study for that spelling test at my place!” Eddy suggested.
“Sounds good,” Komo affirmed. “How about it, Maria? You wanna join us?”
But the red-haired girl shook her head. “Sorry, guys, I have a piano lesson today. Maybe next time, okay?”
“That’s cool,” said Eddy. “Guess we’ll see you tomorrow then!”
The three friends said their goodbyes as they parted ways, leaving just Komo and Eddy walking together.
“Psst, Komo, can you keep a secret?” whispered Eddy, as they walked.
“Depends on the secret,” Komo replied with a sly grin.
“Well…” Eddy began, but didn’t continue.
Komo prompted, “Well?” to which Eddy mumbled something far too quickly for anyone to understand.
“Sorry, didn’t catch that,” teased the purple-haired boy.
Eddy relented. “I said, I think I have a crush on Maria!”
Komo couldn’t suppress his laughter. “Is that supposed to be a secret?”
Rolling his eyes, Eddy continued, “Oh yeah? Your turn now, who’s your crush?”
Komo didn’t have to think long to give his blue-haired friend an answer. “Sean.”
“Sean? Sean Watterson?” Eddy was surprised. “His ears kind of stick out, if you ask me. And, well, if you didn’t know… he’s a boy.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Komo had never understood why, but when it came to crushes, he seemed to pay more attention to boys over girls. Was that odd? He didn’t know for sure, but he had never mentioned it to anyone else before.
Eddy just shrugged. “Boys are supposed have crushes on girls. You sure you’re not really a girl?”
Chuckling, Komo replied, “Pretty sure,” while tugging down on the front of his shorts, giving his friend an eyeful of proof of his gender.
“Hey, put that away!” Eddy exclaimed, more amused than offended. Once Komo did so, the blue-haired boy continued. “Well, you’re keeping my secret, so I’ll keep yours! Okay?”
Komo nodded, “Okay!”
The boys continued talking until they made it to Eddy’s house, where they studied for the spelling test as they had planned, followed by snacks and watching TV.
Eventually, the clock on the wall indicated to Komo that his mother would be returning from the restaurant in but a few hours. With a friendly farewell, he left Eddy’s house to make his way back to his own.
However, when Komo arrived to his home, something was different.
Stationed at the driveway was a car that he had never seen before. It did not belong to Komo’s mother; nor anyone from the town that Komo knew of. Next to this unfamiliar vehicle was his mother, talking with an unfamiliar man in a gray suit.
“Mom?” Komo tried to draw Naomi’s attention. “Who’s that?”
Upon seeing the boy, the suit-wearing man stopped speaking and turned to regard him with a dull expression. “Excuse me, little boy, but you should not interrupt adults when they are busy.”
Naomi promptly defended her son. “I’m sorry, Percival, but I should have mentioned that I have a son. Komo, this is Percival. Shake hands with him.”
Komo hesitated, but he didn’t want to upset his mother; he extended his arm, offering his open hand to Percival, who clenched his own larger hand tight around the boy’s, which he found a little painful.
After withdrawing his arm, Percival returned to his conversation with Naomi.
“It’s very important that you tell me about these things beforehand, you know. But I suppose it’s not a major concern, we have some homes in the Ortoga area which should accommodate children… even ones that are particularly rowdy and unkempt.”
“Ortoga?” Komo asked. He had never heard of such a place.
Instead of a proper answer, Percival gave him an indignant stare. “It’s rude to both eavesdrop and interrupt, boy.” Komo was starting to like this man less and less with every word he spoke.
“Don’t worry about it,” Naomi reassured the boy. “Ortoga is just the name of the place we are moving to.”
“Moving?!” Komo exclaimed, astonished. “Why are we moving?”
But Naomi just shook her head. “We can’t stay in Sandcreston for much longer, Komo. It’s complicated, and you’ll understand when you are older.”
Naomi had never told Komo about the nightmares she had experienced since the day he had almost drowned when he was eight, but she took it as a sign that something terrible would eventually happen to him. The restaurant’s job vacancy was her opportunity to accrue a steady income that would, in good time, allow her to buy a new home in a place much further from the sea. Unexpectedly, but to Naomi’s benefit, she had one day met a customer by the name of Percival Thistles, whom Naomi found interesting due to his job as a real estate salesman – not to mention the generous tip he had provided her for her services.
After Naomi had finished her hours for the day, she was surprised to see that Percival was still sitting in his seat, despite having finished his meal, and as she had thought, he had been waiting for her. Even during their brief encounter, they had formed a good rapport; Naomi was looking for a new home, Percival was always interested in making sales. They continued talking, and it was not difficult at all for the salesman to convince her to visit Ortoga to browse through the open homes on sale.
In part due to Percival’s persuasion, she was confident in finding a home that would meet her needs and fit her budget, so she went home early to pack her boxes with the small amount of possessions she and Komo had.
“But I don’t want to move!” Komo protested. “I’ll miss my school and my friends, and the sea, and… and…”
The boy’s voice trailed off as tears started to well up in his eyes.
Naomi gave her son a comforting pat on the head. “Don’t cry, my son. Percival said Ortoga is a big city, I’m sure there will be plenty for you to do there, and plenty of new friends to make. You don’t have to worry about a thing.”
Percival added, “Don’t be selfish, boy. Your mother is doing this to help you. Can’t you see that?”
Komo dried his eyes. He knew in his heart that Sandcreston was his one true home, but apparently Naomi did not share the sentiment. His mother had always done right by him before, so was moving to Ortoga really in their best interests? He didn’t know, but at this point, dissuading her would prove futile; most of their boxes were packed already, so it was too late to turn back.
At the back seat of Naomi’s old car, Komo kept his gaze fixed to the side window as they drove off, following Percival’s newer and much shinier car to the unfamiliar city of Ortoga. The boy took one last look at their former home as it drew further and further from his view – it may have been a small shack of a house, but it was their house, where they made their earliest memories.
The cars continued along the roads, winding across unfamiliar paths and bringing unfamiliar sights. Komo had attempted to memorize the path they were taking, in some hope that he could make it back to Sandcreston by foot, but exhaustion soon took hold, and he drifted off into sleep, somewhere near the halfway point between Sandcreston and Ortoga.
The first night in Ortoga proved short and uneventful; to afford the Gabara family respite until the morning, Percival had allowed them to stay at his house.
Living alone, the man had no spare bed to offer his guests, leaving Naomi to sleep upon a sofa in the lounge room, while Komo was left with the carpeted floor.
Even after having already slept during the car ride, Komo was quick to fall again into dream-less slumber.
During breakfast the next morning, Komo ate his toast as quickly as he could, taking big bites without chewing thoroughly, before excusing himself from the table. Naomi would have been suspicious of her son’s mood, had she not been distracted by Percival; naturally, they were busy talking about the arrangements for her new home, but within minutes the conversation dissolved into more casual talk of other subjects.
Komo was sitting outside, on the front steps, taking a look at the neighborhood surrounding him. He could see only houses, lawns, fences, and trees… no sand nor water to be found at all. It was starting to sink in that he would never see the ocean again, or feel the wet sand beneath his feet, or even smell the salty breeze that lingered about the beach, and his eyes started to water again.
“…Komo! There you are!”
The boy hadn’t even heard the front door open, but he swiveled his head to see his mother standing there, and he hastily wiped his eyes.
“Remember,” Naomi proceeded to explain, “we need to find a house first, then we have to get you registered for your new school.”
Komo hadn’t even thought about what awaited him at school. Maybe it would be like Sandcreston’s school, he thought, and he would make new friends there. Making friends with Eddy and Maria had not been difficult for him, after all.
Things seemed to proceed rather quickly for the next few days, once Naomi had settled into the new home she had chosen; to Percival’s pleasant surprise, she had decided to live in the house directly across the road from his, and once she made the down payment and had the subsequent mortgage loan arranged, the Gabara family wasted no time in laying down their roots upon the new turf, unpacking all the boxes they had brought with them.
Once they had fully unpacked and settled in, Naomi decided that a special dinner to celebrate their first night in their new house was called for.
“Komo, dinner time!” called Naomi from the kitchen.
At the call of his name, the boy emerged from his new bedroom to sit at the table, much bigger and fancier than the one in their old home. He had just sat down and grabbed his fork and knife, when he noticed that the table was set for three, not two.
Komo’s expression dimmed. He knew exactly who would be filling that extra place. Had the food already been on his plate, he would have eaten as fast as possible to excuse himself from the kitchen, able to safely seclude himself in his bedroom.
But as Naomi told him, “the stew’s still too hot, wait for it to cool down.”
By the time it was ready to serve, it was already too late for Komo. The doorbell chimed, and Naomi called for her son to open the door for their guest. Reluctantly, he made his way to the front door and turned the knob.
Just as he had suspected, Percival was here to intrude upon his life yet again.
“Aren’t you going to offer to take my coat?” he snapped, before Komo could do much of anything. “Your mother must have taught you better than that.”
The boy clenched his teeth, restraining himself from verbally retaliating, and held out his arms as Percival removed the tweed coat he was wearing, and practically tossed it at Komo’s face. Once Komo left the coat to hang on the rack, he returned to the kitchen table, his plate now filled with a fresh serving of beef and chicken stew with rice. Silently, he sat down to eat, unconcerned with whatever his mother was talking about with that man who would not stop getting on his nerves.
“…Oh yes,” Naomi went on, her plate of food almost untouched, “I contacted the principal, and she says Komo can start class on Tuesday! It’s only a ten-minute drive from here to the school, so it won’t be any trouble for me to take him there.”
Percival nodded. “Splendid. Ortoga Elementary is one of the finest schools in the country. Perhaps they may make something out of your son yet.”
At the mention of his name, Komo discreetly listened in. Tuesday was also the day he turned eleven. He thought back to the promise his mother made from a few years ago, to help him learn how to swim.
It seemed all but impossible that she would honor that promise now; in Ortoga, the sea was nowhere to be seen, and there were no pools or lakes nearby either.
He quickly finished the last of his stew and rice, and waited for the adults to finish talking.
“Can I be excused?” he asked.
“May you be excused, you mean?” Percival corrected, which annoyed Komo. He wanted to tell the man to shut up, but his mother was still in their company.
“May I?” he asked again, to which Naomi nodded.
Komo then left the table and went into his bedroom, and flopped over on his new bed.
Despite how unfamiliar the mattress felt, and smelt, Komo was able to find sleep before long.
With all the recent changes in his life, Komo saw a newfound peace in sleep, and dreams.
Dreams where the ocean was never far, he knew perfectly well how to swim, and his hope of a complete family could be realized.
It was a peaceful early morning in the city of Haveena, the sun having risen but a few hours ago; other families in the neighborhood would not wake until quite a while later.
Though it did not seem so at this time, this would be no ordinary day for the Rousteau family.
"Tovio! It's almost time for breakfast!"
The boy upstairs stirred about in his bed, wrapped in a fluffy quilt and lost in a wonderful dream, hardly at all perceptive of the outside noise coming from downstairs.
“Rise and shine, Tovio!”
The bedroom door opened, and before Tovio could even open his eyes, a small white dog had jumped on his bed, climbing over the boy and licking at his soft, round face.
“Ah-wha? Emile?! Wah, you’re tickling me! Ha-hah, cut it out!” Tovio yelped, now wide awake and fidgeting to keep his pet dog under control.
“Looks like Emile is better at waking you up than I am.” Tovio’s mother, Viola, stood at the bedroom doorway, a warm smile on her face as she looked at her dear son.
Tovio yawned, shaking off the last of his early-morning drowsiness as he got out of bed along with Emile.
“Good morning, mother,” he greeted Viola, giving her a tight hug.
“Good morning, Tovio,” responded Viola. “I’d better check on our breakfast now, so you go and get changed while I do that.”
Once Tovio had gone to the bathroom, washed his face and changed out of his pajamas, he made his way downstairs to the kitchen, seating himself at the table to receive a plate of freshly-made waffles.
“Eat up, while they’re still piping hot.” said Viola, as she leaned over to pour maple syrup from a pitcher, generously coating Tovio’s waffles.
“Thank you, mother,” Tovio replied, shortly before starting on his breakfast.
“And here is your coffee, Tomas,” Viola continued, handing a mug to her husband, who had been sitting across from Tovio, his face entirely obscured by the newspaper he was reading.
“Much appreciated, darling.”
The spectacle-clad man put the paper away to accept the coffee, revealing his face to Tovio.
“And good morning to you, son,” Tomas continued, before drinking from his mug.
Tovio didn’t reply until he swallowed the mouthful of waffles he was chewing on.
“Good morning, father.” Tovio noticed that his father was dressed in one of his finest suits, complete with a sensible gray necktie that matched the man’s hair. “Are you going somewhere important today?”
Tomas nodded in affirmation. “Indeed I am, son. Today is the day I go overseas on a very important business convention. You see, the company is looking to make a proposition with some business partners down in countries like…”
The rest of Tomas’s words were lost on young Tovio, for he was but a mere child, not too versed in the ways of business and finances. Nonetheless, out of respect he listened intently to what his father had to say. After the man had finished what he had to say, Tovio spoke up.
“Oh, that sounds very exciting! When are we leaving?”
Tovio had managed to perplex his father.
“Well, son, I suppose I should have mentioned this earlier, but… the company was very strict about whether I could let you or your mother come along with me. I’m afraid I will have to go alone.”
“Alone? How long will you be gone?” Tovio asked.
Tomas stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I believe it may be at least a month before I return.”
An entire month without his father… As far as Tovio could recall, there was no such occasion in his life where he was without both of his parents, for more than a day at least. To have his father suddenly go off to parts unknown for such a long time was something he had never experienced before.
The man noticed that Tovio had stopped eating his waffles.
“Now, don’t be upset,” he assured his son, “your mother will still be here to keep you company. And I promise, when I come back, I’ll have plenty of souvenirs for both of you.”
“…Okay!” Tovio smiled. He felt like he had been worrying too much; as long as he stayed by his mother, he knew he would be safe.
Besides, Haveena was relatively quiet and peaceful for an affluent city, as far as Tovio knew, and after having turned 11 years old last October, he felt a lot braver – moreso than when he was 10, anyway.
“Tovio, your waffles are getting cold. Better hurry and finish them!”
Snapped out of his thoughts by his mother’s words, Tovio resumed his meal.
It had been a few hours since Tomas had left for his flight, and already the house had seemed so much quieter. Tovio sat patiently in the living room, with one of his favorite books tucked under his arm, and Emile lying down, at his feet.
“Tovio, are you okay?” Viola had taken notice of her son idling on the sofa.
“Yes, mother.” Tovio turned to his mother and nodded.
“Alright, just making sure,” replied Viola. “I have to work on my paintings now, but tomorrow, we can go for a walk in the park together, if you want.”
“I’d love that,” affirmed the boy.
“Alright.” With a warm smile, Viola turned into the corridor and entered her studio room. Once the door snapped shut, Tovio knew he would have at least a few hours to himself, as his mother was very passionate about her hobby of painting, sometimes spending entire evenings perfecting her craft. Tovio was not too worried about it though, as he was free to enter the studio room whenever he chose – as long as he was careful with his mother’s art supplies – in case he got too lonely.
However, there was a secret about the Rousteau house that only Tovio seemed to know about, and now was the ideal time for him to partake in that secret. In the living room there was a large framed picture hanging on one wall, which depicted a swan floating in a pond.
That image seemed to speak to Tovio, as the swan was his favorite kind of animal; their pristine white feathers, and the way they swam in water were traits that he found captivating.
According to his parents, that picture had been in that very same spot even before they had moved into the house, and they were so fond of it that they had never seen fit to remove or even touch it. What Tovio had found most curious was the fact that the frame stretched all the way from the floor to just a few inches shy of the ceiling. It was shaped just like the doors of the house – and as Tovio had discovered for himself one day, it was no mere coincidence.
He had happened upon the house’s secret when he was cleaning around the swan picture with a duster. As it had been mostly left alone for so long, it had naturally accumulated quite a fair amount of dust. When the boy tried to remove the picture from the wall to clean behind, he instead found that it swung off one side of the wall, while the other stayed in place, as if it was hinged.
It was certainly a surprise for young Tovio, but what was even more astounding was what was revealed behind the painting: a small room, or a closet to be more accurate, completely empty but for a switch and lightbulb.
As a room, it wasn’t much at all, but to Tovio, it became the secret of the house that only he – and Emile, who would of course keep the secret safe – would ever know about.
Now that his mother was busy with her painting, Tovio took the chance to hide out in the secret closet with Emile. He opened the swan picture, just like it was a door, and closed it behind him once they were both inside. The small enclosed space was completely dark, and even when Tovio flicked on the light switch, the bulb on the ceiling did not glow too brightly. Still, it was bright enough for the boy to read the book he was holding. He sat down and turned to the front page and read aloud, so that his dog could listen.
“Once, there was a prince who lived in a kingdom far away…”
Tovio continued to read aloud, narrating every word in the book. It was but a relatively short tale, yet the boy had spent hours bringing the story to life, from start to finish.
“After the prince had traveled to every corner of the land, searching for adventure, treasure, and of course, the love of a beautiful princess, he returned home. The king and queen were very happy to see their child, safe and sound. The prince could not wait to tell them all about the things he had seen. It had been the most exciting time he ever had!”
“The End.” Tovio closed the book. No matter how many times he had read the story, he had not once tired of reading it aloud, in its entirety.
“I wish I could travel around, like the prince in the story,” Tovio mused, talking to Emile as well as himself. “I would see so many things, and meet so many people.”
Emile whined, and climbed into Tovio’s lap.
“Are you worried about me?” the boy asked the dog. Emile remained silent, but Tovio had an idea of what he would have said.
“Well, it might be a little scary to go somewhere I’ve never been. But I might get to make some new friends, and it won’t be so scary!” Tovio stroked Emile’s soft coat of fur, and the two of them continued to sit in calm silence.
“Tovio? I’m getting dinner started. Do you want to help?”
Viola had called from outside, finished with her painting.
“Just a minute, I’m coming!” replied Tovio, opening the door just a little to see if anyone was in the living room before he came out.
Six days had passed since Tomas Rousteau had left for the business convention. Tovio assumed that he was very busy, since he had so far called only once, telling Viola that he had made the flight safely before she handed the phone to Tovio.
The boy had many questions he wanted to ask his father, like how it was on the plane, and how long it took to get there, which Tomas had attempted to answer as briefly as he was able; he did not have a lot of time to talk. Even if it had been for a short while, Tovio found a small comfort in hearing his father talking with him.
Tovio and his mother had spent most of the following day taking Emile for a walk around the streets, and it was almost evening by the time they had returned home. It had been such an exciting day for Tovio that as soon as he finished his dinner, he quickly headed upstairs to brush his teeth, and fall right into bed.
Just as he had done every night since Tomas’s departure, he lifted the blankets to allow Emile into the bed with him. Once settled in, the boy and the dog were quick to drift into sleep.
When Tovio woke up, it was still pitch-dark. He thought he had heard something downstairs, but the only noise that filled the early hours was the subdued, steady breathing of Emile, still sleeping in the bed. Still, Tovio continued to listen, wary of any suspicious noises.
He kept his ears as open as he was able, but the warmth of his blankets and his dog was beginning to beckon him towards slumber once again. Just when he was about to rest his eyes, he heard something.
It sounded like someone talking loudly, and it came from downstairs.
What Tovio had heard was in fact something he would never have expected; he and Viola had no idea that someone had been observing the Rousteau household in secret, and decided that now had been the perfect opportunity to break in, intending to rob the place.
The burglar had tried to smash the window open quietly – as quietly as glass can be broken, that is – yet it was still enough to awaken Viola. The thief was still skulking about the living room, in pursuit of valuables, when the woman appeared before him.
“What are you doing?!” she questioned the thief, whose face was completely concealed with a mask; she had no idea who this strange man was. He gave no reply, and instead, his gaze fell upon the necklace that Viola was wearing: a gold chain with a diamond pendant, a very precious thing given to her by Tomas for their tenth wedding anniversary. She had worn it at all times since that day, but when confronted with a thief, it was not an ideal situation in the least.
Amid the stranger’s attempt to relieve Viola of her most valuable possession, she did whatever she could to defend herself.
However, the thief was larger, stronger, and most dangerously, he was merciless to anyone who dared to impede his efforts. Despite her best attempts to fight back, Viola was eventually – and fatally – overwhelmed.
Tovio was scared.
He wanted to be brave, but he was only a child.
He had heard his mother from downstairs, shouting, and he had heard another voice.
It sounded like a man’s voice… who could it have been? Tovio wondered if Tomas had come home early, without prior announcement. The boy did deeply miss his father after all.
But when Tovio heard the screaming continue, he began to worry. It sounded like something bad was happening to his mother, Tovio thought, but what? As frightened as he was, he was worried for his parent. The boy made sure his pet dog was safely nestled in his bed, and then proceeded to open the door, slowly as he could to ensure his actions weren’t heard.
Tovio carefully descended the stairs, as the shouting continued. However, it had fallen silent by the time he had reached the last step. It was still dark, and Tovio’s vision had only adjusted enough to catch a vague glimpse, across the corridor and into the living room, of something moving through the window. The boy walked to the room and reached for the light switch, wondering what had transpired. However, he was not prepared for what he would find.
“…Mother?!” The boy’s voice came out shaky.
Tovio was not oblivious to the concept of death; his parents had little choice but to explain to him when he was six years old, and Emile had dragged a sparrow into the house, and Tovio saw that did not wake from its sleep, no matter how much he had waited or poked at the bird.
With all his heart, Tovio did not want to believe that Viola was due for the same fate. No matter how much he called out for his mother, or nudged her body, she did not respond at all. There was nothing Tovio could do.
It was morning by the time Tovio came to. His eyes felt sticky and heavy after he had fallen asleep crying at his mother’s side, and he couldn’t will himself to move at all from his position, curled and lying on the ground, until he felt something warm and wet brushing against his cheek.
Emile had come downstairs, apparently looking for the boy who had lost his mother. The small dog might have picked up on the boy’s sadness, as he began to nudge at Tovio with his small, damp nose, whining.
“Emile…” The words emerged weakly from Tovio’s lips, and only his eyes moved to meet the gaze of his pet.
A loud thumping sound erupted from the front door, and Tovio was quickly startled out of his stupor. He quickly rose to his feet and his eyes darted from left to right, wondering what could have caused such a noise.
The heavy knocking continued, followed by an unrecognizable voice uttering words muffled from behind the door. Tovio panicked, having no idea who could be trying to invite themselves into the house – where they would inevitably witness the same dreadful sight that Tovio had.
Spurred into action by his fear and alarm, Tovio picked up Emile and ran as fast as he could to the door concealed by the swan painting, and retreated into the small, secret room, hopeful that whatever was trying to enter the house would not find them.
It was in fact a small group of Haveena’s police officers, who had been notified of the unusual activity that had occurred in the night; most likely a nearby resident had been the one to make the call, though the fact that the police had not arrived earlier suggested that the informant was unaware of how dire the situation really was.
Eventually, one of the officers located the smashed window that the burglar had used to enter the Rousteau home; unable to force the front door open, the officer opted to use the very same window to begin the investigation of the circumstances of Viola’s murder.
From within the secret room, Tovio could hear only footsteps, stepping in an unfamiliar rhythm that sounded nothing like the usual walk of either of his parents. Accompanying the footfalls were subdued voices, hardly audible to the young boy’s ears.
Tovio remained as silent as could be, and even held his fingers over Emile’s mouth, trying not to let the dog bark to give away their location. With his heart racing, Tovio remained huddled with his pet, hoping the strangers would leave without finding either of them.
Surprisingly, no officer among the group of investigators had thought to search behind the swan painting, but they had concluded that Viola Rousteau had been a victim of lethal force, and they were able to obtain fingerprints and other evidence that would prove useful to identifying the culprit.
The police force did find it unusual that Tovio was not accounted for; they had received knowledge that Tomas, Viola’s husband, had embarked on his business trip, explaining his absence, but the records did show that the family had one child who could not be found, even after checking every room in the house. No resident among the neighborhood could vouch for the child’s whereabouts, so Tovio was declared missing as a result of the episode.
Tovio had fallen asleep once more while waiting for the house to fall quiet again, and he later woke up to silence. He opened the door by just a tiny amount to see if anyone was still there, and then came back into the living room with Emile once it appeared safe. The police officers had left, and so too, it seemed, did Viola’s body. It had been removed from the area and was replaced by a white shape in her likeness, drawn on the ground.
“Mother, why did this happen?” he asked the chalk outline, with his heart weighing heavy and his eyes damp with tears, “What will I do without you?”
Before he knew it, Tuesday morning had arrived for Komo.
“Good morning, Komo!” his mother greeted as she entered his bedroom. “You know what day it is today?”
Rubbing his freshly-awakened eyes, Komo realized quickly. “It’s my birthday!”
Giving her son a hug, Naomi added, “Yes, it is! And it’s also the day you start your new school! Aren’t you excited?”
After a quick breakfast, Naomi handed him his favorite red backpack, filled with his books and his lunch for the day.
“Remember, Komo, this is your first day at your new school. Remember to be polite and show your classmates and your teacher your lovely smile! You’ll make friends in no time if you’re friendly.”
“Okay, Mom,” Komo agreed, demonstrating a wide smile to appease his mother. Even though he had been living in Ortoga for nearly a week now, he was still nervous about going to a new school.
They walked out of the house and entered the car, but when Naomi tried to start the engine, it didn’t respond. The car simply stayed silent even as Naomi turned the key.
“What happened to the car?” Komo asked from the back seat.
“I don’t know, son, but if I can’t start it, you won’t get to go to school.” Naomi continued to turn the car’s key around in its slot, hoping to hear the familiar rumble of the ignition, but she found no such luck.
Komo wondered what this meant for his big day. Back in Sandcreston, he always celebrated his birthdays with his close friends, doing things like playing games, watching movies, and eating slices of delicious home-made cake. But it seemed those days were behind him now, and he couldn’t imagine what his mother had in store for his birthday today.
He decided to ask for himself “Mom?”
“What are we going to do for my-”
But Naomi was suddenly distracted by something tapping on her car window. It was Percival, clad in his gray suit as always. From the other side of the road, he had noticed the woman sitting in her unmoving car, and decided to investigate the matter. Naomi rolled down the window so she could hear the man talk.
“Good morning, my dear,” he said in an affable tone, “Are you having trouble with the car?”
Naomi answered in the affirmative, and Percival needed but a moment to devise a solution. “I’m not much of a mechanic myself, but I can offer you my vehicle for the time being.”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” Naomi protested, shaking her head, “I don’t want to impose on you.”
“It wouldn’t bother me at all,” reassured Percival. “I’d hate for you to be running late on account of your car failing you.”
As Percival had hoped, Naomi relented. “All right. I was going to do some shopping today, after I drop Komo off at school.”
And as quickly as they had come, Komo’s hopes for missing school today were extinguished. Under his breath, he cursed Percival for butting in. Why was that man so concerned about what his mother was doing, anyway? Komo thought it a bit ridiculous, as he followed Naomi out of her car, and into the back seat of Percival’s.
“You,” said the man, pointing to the boy, “keep your sticky fingers to yourself, boy. I won’t have you dirtying my leather seats.” Komo scowled; his fingers weren’t sticky or anywhere near dirty.
Just as Naomi had mentioned before, it was a short drive to the school; no more than ten minutes had gone by when Komo saw the large building looming over him; the front doors bearing a plaque emblazoned with the words “ORTOGA ELEMENTARY SCHOOL.”
Komo practically ejected out of the car as it came to a stop, and he kept walking towards the doors, until his mother called out. “Komo! You forgot something!”
He hurried back to the car, the window coming down so that Komo’s face met Naomi’s.
“Oh, right!” Komo said to himself. “Bye, Mom!” He leaned in to give his mother a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Thank you, son,” Naomi replied, “but I was talking about this.” She held up Komo’s red backpack; he had almost forgotten to bring it with him! After he took his bag, Naomi added, “Don’t worry, I’ll have a special birthday surprise for you after school!”
Hearing that put a smile on Komo’s face, one that persisted as he entered the school building and walked down the corridors. It was only when he realized that he had no idea where he was supposed to be that his smile began to waver.
“Hello, do you need help?”
Komo turned, and he was surprised to see a woman with coiffed, ruby-red hair who looked to be around his mother’s age; she wore a sensible-looking pair of glasses and a necklace that shimmered in the sunlight.
“I… I’m Komo,” said the boy. “Komo Gabara…”
Indeed, that name proved familiar to the woman, and she placed her hand on Komo’s shoulder. “That’s right, your mother told me you would be starting school today! I’m Miss Birchwood, the principal of Ortoga Elementary. How old are you, Komo?”
“Eleven,” replied the boy.
“Very good,” Miss Birchwood affirmed. “Then I believe the classroom for you is Room 5-A. Come, I will lead you there.”
After Komo introduced himself to the class of Room 5-A, as well as the teacher, Mr. Foley, he was instructed to sit at the nearest unoccupied desk. Taking a look around the classroom, Komo opted for a desk that rested between two other students.
The first, a boy with dark-green hair and glasses, turned to Komo and asked, “Hey, how many Pixie Patrol cards do you have?”
Komo shook his head; he had no idea what this boy was talking about. “I don’t know,” he replied.
Mr. Foley had been writing on the chalkboard until he heard Komo whispering, and he immediately turned to give his new student a look of disapproval.
“Komo,” he admonished, “this may be your first day here, but I expect you to conduct yourself properly in my class. Please keep quiet.”
“Sorry, sir,” said Komo. He looked to the teacher, then to the boy with the glasses. He stopped paying attention to Komo, pretending to have no part in interrupting the lesson.
When Mr. Foley had finished talking and writing, he instructed the class to write down everything on the chalkboard, in their books. This was no problem at all for Komo; he retrieved a blank notebook and ballpoint pen from his backpack, and began to write. He had only made it through one word when his pen began to fail him, running out of ink.
After scribbling in the book’s back page failed to revitalize his pen, Komo tapped the shoulder of the second classmate sitting next to him.
“Hi, can I borrow a pen?” he asked.
The girl sitting next to him leaned away as soon as she laid her eyes upon him. “Who are you?”
“I’m Komo, the new kid.” She hadn’t been paying attention when Komo had introduced himself to the class.
“I don’t have a spare pen,” she retorted. “And you smell funny! What’s up with that?” She pushed the palm of her hand towards Komo’s face, bringing their conversation to a swift end.
Komo frowned. Things were not going as well as he had hoped… and he was fairly sure that he did not smell funny. He didn’t have much time to dwell on it though, as he really needed to get writing. He began to rummage in his bag for another pen, or pencil, or anything he could write with.
The first day at a new school was always the toughest, Miss Birchwood had told Komo before class began, and indeed her words held true; after class came recess, and Komo tried to join the other kids in a ball game. Since it was a game he didn’t know, he wasn’t clear on the rules and kept getting disqualified. Not long after recess came lunch, and all Komo had been given was a banana, some rice crackers, and a small carton of apple juice. As much as he wanted some of the candy bars, potato chips and other sweets that his peers were eating, he couldn’t convince any of them to share with him.
Still, now that the first day was over and done with, it could only mean that the days to come would only get better. While his classmates weren’t particularly friendly, and Mr. Foley afforded him no special treatment, he did like Miss Birchwood, and felt that he could look to her if he encountered any more trouble at school.
As he walked out of the school grounds, he saw his mother’s car parked nearby, with her sitting inside, waiting. No sign of Pervical or his car to be found, he observed, which was a small relief.
“Hi, Komo!” said Naomi.
“Hi, Mom!” greeted the boy as he got inside. “How did you fix the car?”
But Naomi shook her head, as they drove off. “Oh no, I didn’t fix it, Mr. Percival called a mechanic over to our place to have a look at it! It turned out that the battery just needed to be jump-started! Isn’t that lucky?”
“I guess,” Komo conceded.
“That Mr. Percival is quite the life-saver,” Naomi continued. “I really must thank him for helping us out today. How about we invite him over for your birthday dinner, Komo? Does that sound good?”
“I… I dunno about that,” responded the boy.
Naomi was quite perplexed that her son didn’t like Percival, whom she found pleasant and charming. “Really? Why not?”
Komo thought back to every time Percival interacted with him; rarely ever did the man have anything to say to the boy aside from criticism and reprimand. “Well… he’s not nice to me.”
“Are you sure?” Naomi inquired. “I guess I’d better talk to him after dinner. I’ll have it all straightened out!”
“Thanks, Mom.” Komo’s smile returned. If there was anyone for him to rely on, it was his mother.
“Happy birthday, Komo! Make a wish!”
Inhaling deeply, Komo blew out all eleven of the candles on his birthday cake in one breath, eliciting applause from Naomi and what seemed to be a nod of acknowledgement from Percival.
Komo could only hope that his birthday wish – to be able to swim in the ocean and find his father – would be fulfilled someday, whether one day later, or a thousand days.
After finishing his slice of cake, store-bought instead of home-made, Komo was presented with a box wrapped in a ribbon.
“Open your present,” Naomi enthused to her son.
Removing the bow, Komo opened the box to reveal a rolled-up piece of fabric, fuzzy to the touch. When he unfurled the garment, it turned out to be a sweater, blue-gray with a black bow-tie sewn on, under the neck.
“Ortoga’s not like Sandcreston, where it’s warm all year,” explained Komo’s mother. “It’ll get cold in the winter, so I picked out a nice sweater for you to wear!”
“You should be grateful, boy,” Percival added.
As much as Komo disliked the man, he did have a point. He put the sweater on over his shirt, and found that he had to pull back the sleeves to free his hands.
He didn’t know if he would be wearing it much after this, but he appreciated the gesture all the same.
“Thanks, Mom!” Komo gave his mother a hug, its softness enhanced by the sweater.
Once it was bedtime for Komo, Naomi and Percival began to converse again.
“There’s something that Komo said that worries me, Percival,” Naomi began, looking uneasy.
“And what might that be?” Percival asked. “Did that boy say something vulgar to you?”
Naomi replied, “It’s not that. When I was talking with him about you, he said that you’re not nice to him.”
Percival seemed taken aback with surprise for a moment, before he chuckled, waving his hand dismissively. “Well now, that’s quite ridiculous! The boy is like a son to me!”
The woman’s gaze met the man’s. “I’m so glad you feel that way… but why would Komo say that then?”
Stroking his mustache in thought, Percival opined, “I suspect that already adolescence is beginning to take root in your son. He’s getting to that age, after all. His dislike of me may simply be an act of pre-teen rebellion!”
“Pre-teen rebellion?” Naomi’s voice faltered with concern. “That sounds so scary. I can’t let that happen to my sweet Komo.”
“I’m afraid it is inevitable, my dear,” Percival lamented. “It is the nature of growing children. Without taking proper measures, your boy may end up getting into trouble at school, or even with the law.”
Naomi’s hands clenched. “I can’t let that happen! I won’t lose Komo like I lost his father! I have to make sure that he is raised properly.” She turned to the man sitting next to her, with a solemn expression. “Percival?”
“Yes, my dear?” Percival asked.
“My son needs a father figure in his life. Will you try to spend more time with him?”
The weeks passed by, and Komo made his best effort to accustom himself to the new life he would lead in Ortoga with his mother – and as it seemed of late, with Percival, who seemed to appear at the Gabara household increasingly often, offering to take Komo to school, sitting with the family for dinner, and even dropping by in the afternoons to talk and have coffee with Naomi.
Percival seemed to find fault in everything the boy did, and Komo couldn’t bring himself to respect the man, but both cared deeply for Naomi; neither of them wanted to upset her, so they learned to keep to a mutual tolerance, if only for her sake.
Two months after the day the Gabaras had moved to Ortoga, Percival had once again been tasked with driving Komo to school, as Naomi was expecting a phone call from the local post office, where she had applied for a part-time position.
Komo entered Percival’s car, sitting stiffly and keeping his hands clasped together on his lap; he knew of course that Percival wouldn’t tolerate him slouching or touching anything he shouldn’t.
As they went down the road, Komo was the first to break the silence.
The man’s lips curled into a frown, though Komo could not see it from the back seat.
“Don’t be insolent,” he snapped, “You will call me Mr. Thistles, is that understood?”
“Yes… Mr. Thistles.” said Komo, with a resigned sigh.
“What is it then?” Percival asked.
Komo paused in thought for a moment, and then spoke. “Why do you spend so much time with my mom? I see you in our home every day.”
Percival smirked. “Isn’t it obvious, boy? Your mother values my company, as I value hers. And it’s clear to me that she needed my help taking care of you too! What’s a boy to do when he has no father to bring him up right?”
“I have a father,” Komo stated. “I’ll see him again someday.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Percival dismissed, his tone was not spiteful, but more matter-of-fact. “Your mother told me about your father, and I think you would be better off giving up on seeing him again.”
Komo was confused. “What are you talking about?” Before he could get any response, the car came to a halt; they had already made it to Ortoga Elementary.
“Never you mind that,” Percival advised. “You should really get going now, you don’t want to be late for classes, do you?”
School proceeded as normal for the most part; now that Komo had gotten into the rhythm of Mr. Foley’s class, he was able to keep up with the lessons at an adequate level – passing, but not quite excelling. The other students were also getting along better with their new classmate, and Komo could actually hold a conversation with his classmates, though when they talked, it was usually discussion generated from whatever Mr. Foley was teaching. Komo didn’t mind too much, as long as he didn’t have to be anywhere near Tad Crowler. The biggest, strongest boy in the class was recognized as something of a bully, and for reasons known only to Tad himself, he had taken to picking on Komo.
Komo was sitting at his desk when he felt a ball of scrunched paper hit him on the back of the head. He tried to ignore it, but he felt the same thing happen again, and then a third time. Komo continued to resist until he felt the sting of a rubber band being launched at his ear.
He span around to see the grinning face of the obvious culprit. “Stop it, Tad!” he warned.
“Shut up, Lame-o!” Tad laughed to himself, thinking himself clever for coming up with a new name to call Komo.
Komo then reacted by taking the paper balls that Tad had hit him with, and sending them back, throwing as hard as he could. This did not bother the bully however; he just ducked to evade the barrage.
Mr. Foley entered the classroom, and Komo was quick to turn back around to face him.
“Good morning, class,” he announced. “Today, we have a special surprise for every student.”
Everyone began murmuring amongst themselves, wondering what was in store for them.
Mr. Foley continued, “The company Ice Cream Kingdom is testing out a new kind of ice cream, and they wanted Ortoga Elementary to try the first sample batch! Each student will receive one free ice cream cone after lunch.”
Komo’s eyes lit up. Ice cream was always a cool, refreshing treat to enjoy on summer nights in Sandcreston, and to receive free ice cream was a gift no boy would refuse.
It almost seemed to the students like lunch time would never come, but their collective patience endured, and the moment finally came; after lunch, Principal Birchwood led the students of every class to the ice cream truck, whereupon they formed a single-file line.
Standing in the queue, Komo could see the ice cream being given to the children; it was soft serve – which looked to be an inviting swirl of different flavors – being dispensed into waffle cones, the kind that gave a very satisfying crunch when bitten into. Komo could feel his heart tremble in excitement.
After several minutes of waiting, it was at last time for Komo to receive his free ice cream. The vendor in the truck filled the waffle cone with a generous mound of soft serve, and handed it to the boy, who gave a sincere thanks.
Komo was just about to savor of the delicious dessert when he saw a familiar face approaching him.
“Leave me alone, Tad.” Komo wanted to enjoy this moment, and he knew that Tad would find a way to ruin things.
“How about nah, Bozo?” Tad retorted. “Hey, wanna swap cones? Mine’s bigger.” He showed Komo the cone in his hand. Naturally, the two ice cream cones were about the same, and Komo quickly caught on.
“No Tad, you’re just trying to take my ice cream,” said Komo.
But Tad just smirked. “What am I trying to do?”
“Take my ice cream!” Komo repeated, his voice heavy with frustration.
“Take your ice cream? Sure, whatever you say, Lame-o!” With his free hand, Tad reached out and snatched the cone Komo was holding.
Komo couldn’t believe what was happening. “Give it back, Tad!” he warned.
“Sorry,” Tad taunted, “but I can’t hear you over my two ice cream cones.” He took some licks from both Komo’s cone and his own. “Mmm, this is good! Too bad you didn’t get any, Dope-o!”
Komo tried to grab his cone back, but Tad kept it out of his reach, laughing all the while in a mocking way.
“Aww, does the little baby want some ice cream? Here you go!”
Komo continued to struggle against Tad when the bully decided to swipe at Komo right in the face with his own cone, smearing the soft serve all over his eyes and nose.
“Look, everyone!” sneered Tad, pointing and laughing. “Look at the messy baby! Ha ha ha, messy ice cream baby!”
That act ended up being the last straw for Komo. Tad had single-handedly spoiled what should have been the best school day he would ever have, for no other reason than his own cruel amusement. With the sheer strength driven by his now-fouled mood, he tackled Tad to push him down, and began hitting him all over, making Tad pay for all the torment he had to bear.
Guided only by the anger he felt, Komo kept attacking, unflinching even as Tad started to strike back out of self-defense. This brawl continued until Komo felt something tugging at his shirt collar, pulling him away from Tad.
“Komo, your behavior appalls me.”
The boy turned his head, and looking back at him was the face of Principal Birchwood, more stern than he had ever seen her before.
Tovio and Emile were all alone.
With Tomas away, off in some strange country and not due back for a long time, and Viola the victim of manslaughter by a thief who had broken into the house, there was not a person to take care of the boy and dog.
The next-door neighbor, an elderly man named Mr. Leach, was quite friendly to Tovio – but he despised small pets like Emile, especially after one occasion where the dog had wandered into Mr. Leach’s property, and pulled down the laundry he had hung on his clothesline. The old man had come outside to find that all of the clothes he had washed and left out to dry were tattered and covered in mud and grass. Tovio had to personally promise to Mr. Leach that Emile would never repeat the mistake again.
Tovio didn’t know the other people of the neighborhood well enough to ask them for help, and it was very unlucky for him that he didn’t think to do so; the neighbors were all under the same impression that the boy was missing, just as the police had told them, and were too afraid to approach the Rousteau house; murder sites were known to have that effect on people.
There was little recourse left to young Tovio. He had to take care of himself, and Emile, until Tomas returned. It did not seem like an impossible task, he thought, as he had been homeschooled from an early age, which included being given basic lessons in cooking by his mother. As long as he had the ingredients he needed and was careful with the stove, he could keep himself and his pet fed well enough.
The gravity of his current situation had left him rather downcast, but Tovio functioned as best he could to keep himself, and Emile, healthy.
His cooking ability proved sufficient; he was able to make omelettes for breakfast, vegetable stew for lunch, and spaghetti with sauce for dinner, and the results, while not quite worthy of a gourmet restaurant, proved edible enough for an eleven year-old boy and a Bichon Frise dog.
It only took four days until Tovio had managed to exhaust the kitchen’s food supplies; with Tomas away on business, Viola hadn’t bought as much food, and whatever was left in the fridge either proved unpalatable, unsuitable, or too difficult for Tovio to cook with.
Without even a single morsel of food for breakfast, the boy found his stomach panging with hunger. Emile was not much better off, as there was no dog food left either. Tovio saw his dog crouching by the empty food bowl, whimpering as the bowl continued to remain empty.
“Sorry, Emile. We don’t have any food left,” Tovio apologized. He couldn’t bear to see or hear the poor dog suffering, and he knew that he would have to obtain more food to keep the both of them fed. While he had less than three dollars that he could call his own, Tovio did know where his parents kept their money. He had never stolen any of his parents’ earnings – they were quite happy to buy anything Tovio asked for, which wasn’t much at all – but in these dire circumstances, he had no choice. He walked into his parents’ bedroom, and there, sitting on a chest of drawers, was the porcelain jar that held the family’s emergency funds.
This was an emergency, Tovio reasoned, and he imagined his father would understand if he knew what had happened.
From inside the jar’s opening, the boy produced a series of bills of different values. He counted until he had about fifty dollars – that seemed an ample amount to buy a week’s worth of food for one child and one dog. It seemed a little scary to Tovio, going out all on his own, but he also thought it was like something from his favorite story; he as the noble young prince, going off on his quest to obtain groceries for him and his dog. Thinking of it like that gave him a little courage.
As Tovio was putting on his shoes, ready to walk to the store, Emile started to follow, weaving restlessly around his legs and barking softly.
“Emile,” instructed Tovio, “I need you to stay here while I buy us some food. I’ll be back soon, okay?”
But the small dog didn’t seem to heed the boy; he pawed at the front door, and when Tovio opened it, he squeezed through, ending up on the sidewalk.
Tovio grabbed the dog, picking him up by the belly. “Emile, please come back inside! I really need to go to the store!”
At that moment, a truck passed by the road, and Emile wriggled free from Tovio’s hold, beginning to give chase to the large vehicle. Possessing a canine’s highly sophisticated sense of smell, and driven by hunger, Emile had picked up on the scent of food coming from the truck’s cargo, and was now in heated pursuit.
“Emile, wait for me!” shouted Tovio. He ran after his dog, desperate to keep up. The boy wasn’t particularly athletic, but he exerted himself to keep his legs moving, ensuring that Emile remained within his view; he didn’t want to lose the one member of his family still in his company.
The food-carrying truck continued onward, with Emile, and Tovio by extension, chasing after it. They ran past the store that Tovio was planning to buy from, and into a part of Haveena that the boy didn’t fully recognize. Even as the vehicle went on to veer into unfamiliar roads, Tovio and Emile didn’t give up, the dog focused on obtaining his next meal, and the boy determined not to lose his dearest companion.
The truck’s delivery route led it to pass by a four-way intersection, dangerous to cross if traffic was frequent and there was no pedestrian crosswalk nearby. Approaching the intersection, Tovio looked left, then right. Cars were coming in from the right side, making it too risky for him to cross, so he had to stop.
However, Emile carried on, and didn’t heed the incoming vehicles. Tovio wasn’t near enough to hold his dog back, and he showed no signs of abandoning his chase.
“Emile, stop!!” the boy cried out.
It was too late though, as the first car ran straight over the dog without stopping, followed by a second, and a third.
To say the least, Emile did not survive the series of collisions.
Though still fatigued from running, Tovio’s breath quickly halted as he witnessed the accident occur, and he could only look on as the cars had raced by, pitiless in dealing Emile his untimely fate. Looking at what remained of Emile was far too upsetting for Tovio, and he turned away.
First, his father had left, and then his mother, and finally, his pet dog… and on top of all that, he had no idea where he was. As it sunk in, Tovio fell to his knees and began to cry, sobbing horribly as the tears came once more. He felt so alone and so isolated in this completely unknown place, with nobody left to comfort him.
Tovio’s eyes felt almost swollen by the time his flow of tears had dried up. Sniffing to clear his nose, he stopped sobbing, but he couldn’t find the will to rise to his feet.
The traffic around him continued on as normal, until a black van slowed down and pulled over to the curb, right next to Tovio. He didn’t seem to notice until the driver called out to him.
“Hello, little boy! Are you lost?”
Tovio looked up, and he saw the van, and inside, a man he didn’t know, calling out to him.
“Do you need someone to drive you home?” the man asked.
This person was offering to give Tovio a ride home, but he remembered what Tomas had said about strangers. It was like the story about the brother and sister who visited a witch’s house made of gingerbread; some strangers could appear friendly, and they may even come bringing nice gifts, but it was only a trick. Tovio didn’t look back as he began to run away from the van. He didn’t want the strange man to cook him and eat him, like the witch was planning to do to the children in the story, or anything worse.
He knew better than to accept the stranger’s offer, but Tovio did find himself wondering how he would get home. He didn’t at all remember the path he took from home, as he was too busy making sure he didn’t lose sight of Emile.
In fleeing the man in the van, Tovio had strayed off the roadside, and was now in what looked like a grassy field with a dense population of trees. He had no idea what direction to take, but he couldn’t stay in the middle of nowhere forever. Tovio then began to walk again, hoping that he would eventually find his house.
Without even the slightest inkling of the directions to take to his house, Tovio continued to wander aimlessly across the meadows, which stretched out as far ahead as the boy could see. As far as he could tell, there were no other people to be found in this area; the only indications of life at all were the sounds of chirping and fluttering wings, coming from birds that roosted in the trees. While the scenery did prove calming to Tovio, especially after the stranger scare, it did little to ease the loneliness and hunger that continued to grow within him.
Many minutes passed, later becoming hours, and Tovio was finally out of the meadow, finding the road once more. A short distance ahead, he spotted a convenience store, with a bench and a sign nearby. Anticipation fueling his tired body, Tovio ran to the sign, hoping that it was what he assumed.
To his elation, the sign did indeed mark a bus stop. Tovio had taken the bus before once, when the car was in need of repairs, and the Rousteaus decided to take a trip to the zoo that day. To the boy, the process of boarding a bus seemed quite simple; pay the fare, and wait for the bus to drive to the right destination. For a moment, Tovio panicked, as he didn’t have any coins for the bus fare.
But his fears were quelled when he realized he had borrowed more than enough money from the house. Bus drivers would only accept coins, he remembered Viola saying, so Tovio entered the convenience store, looking for something cheap to purchase.
He located a bar of caramel chocolate, and meekly presented it to the clerk, sliding it across the counter’s surface accompanied by a five-dollar bill. Tovio was still wary of strangers, and this shopkeeper was no exception, but he didn’t have much of a choice if he wanted to return home.
That aside, there was an entire countertop separating the boy from the clerk; he felt safer with that barrier between them.
Tovio didn’t know it, but the clerk bore no ill will or malicious intentions. All the same, he received the candy bar he purchased, as well as the correct amount of change; Tovio ended up fifty cents poorer, but with a handful of coins in his possession; they bulged in his pocket, jingling like bells as Tovio walked out of the store.
In an instant, he tore open the wrapper of the chocolate bar he had purchased, and started to eat. It was only about the size of his palm, and didn’t make for a very substantial meal, but it was the only thing Tovio had to eat since the night before, and he was ravenous in demolishing the chocolate, finishing the entire thing within thirty seconds.
Now that his belly was a little more full, Tovio sat himself on the bench, waiting for the next bus to arrive. The schedule wasn’t displayed, but, looking through the convenience store’s doorway, the boy could see the clock on the wall. It was almost 1:00 PM; it was not unlikely that another bus would be arriving soon.
It didn’t take too long for the bus to come, and Tovio stood up, hoping that it would catch the bus driver’s attention. When the big, brick-shaped vehicle came to a halt, the boy waited for the automated doors to part, and then entered. As with the shopkeeper, Tovio kept completely silent as he deposited coins into the collection tray; he couldn’t even make eye contact with the bus driver as he handed the boy his ticket.
The bus held at least two dozen passengers before Tovio had boarded, and he looked for a seat where nobody was sitting adjacent; as it turned out, the furthest row down was completely unoccupied, and he sat there, still silent when the bus began moving again.
Tovio was certain that this bus was the lifeline that would return him to his rightful home in Haveena, but as the transport carried on with its route, he didn’t recognize any of the places that passed by. He shuffled nervously in his seat, hoping that he would eventually see some piece of scenery he recognized.
As the bus proceeded with its journey, it continued to make regular stops, each with some passengers entering, and others leaving, and none of them recognizable to Tovio. It came to a point where there were less people entering than there were leaving, the total number of occupants gradually declining. Soon enough, the numbers had dwindled down to only Tovio, and the bus driver.
Unfortunately for Tovio, the bus was nearing its final destination – and it wasn’t Haveena. Even after the driver had turned into the town’s bus station, and stopped the vehicle’s engine, Tovio remained seated, until he heard a man’s voice.
“Come on, kid! It’s the end of the line! You gotta get off!” The bus driver spoke firmly, but he wasn’t trying to upset the boy. Even so, Tovio was intimidated enough to immediately exit the bus.
Tovio looked around, wondering where he had been whisked away to. He soon found a sign that read “Ortoga Bus Station Schedule – Platform 1” which listed a series of times and locations.
There were more buses to come, Tovio realized, and there was a chance there would be one here that could take him to Haveena. As long as he still had money, he could take another bus, after all.
Reading Platform 1’s schedule, he saw no mention of his hometown… but if this was Platform 1, where were the other platforms? Tovio decided he would search the bus station.
But before he could, he felt a sensation he could not ignore: the need to use the bathroom. He could see the familiar stick figure sign, and headed towards it as quickly as he could.
After he was finished, Tovio washed his hands in the bathroom sink. There were no paper towels left, and the hand dryer didn’t function at all, so he ended up wiping his dampened hands on the fabric of his shorts.
As he rubbed his hands along the fabric, something didn’t feel right. He patted down on his pockets, hoping to feel the distinct shape of rolled-up money bills, but he didn’t feel anything. Turning his pockets inside out, they were, to his horror, completely empty.
Tovio panicked. What happened to the rest of the money he had brought? He had been careful in making sure it was there when he went to the convenience store, and later when he got on the bus, and suddenly, all of it had seemingly vanished, gone without a trace like smoke in the wind.
He didn’t know it, but the money had actually fallen out of his pocket during the long bus ride, and the entire roll of cash could very well have still been where he had dropped it, sitting under one of the seats on the very same bus. However, he didn’t think to look there again, and even if he did, the bus doors were locked, and only a bus driver could open them.
Tovio was too exhausted to even cry over his predicament. He went to sit on the closest bench he could find, and ended up falling asleep. It wasn’t a very comfortable sleep like the ones he had in his own bed, and he didn’t have pleasant dreams, or any dreams for that matter. But he needed to rest all the same.
The people working at the bus station noticed Tovio sleeping on the bench, but they didn’t disturb him. It was quite apparent that he was but a small boy, not at all accustomed to the hectic atmosphere of the bus station, and most likely left behind amid the confusion by whoever was looking after him. Seeing how much the boy needed his rest, the staff let him be, waiting until the next work day started before they would wake him up, and ask about what had happened to him.
The boy didn’t wake until next morning. Before any of the bus station workers could find him, he left the place, finding that unless he came upon enough money to ride another bus, he had no choice but to walk all the way back to Haveena.
He had wandered Ortoga for some time, before he felt an unusual dryness from the inside of his mouth, which bothered him. He hadn’t drank any fluids after he left home, and while he had the opportunity to buy a drink at the convenience store, or even drink from the sinks in the bus station bathroom, he was not physically and mentally in the best condition for such forethought.
Tovio was growing more thirsty with each passing minute, and even after sleeping, he was still quite weary and depressed from all that had happened to him.
At that moment, he recalled his favorite stories, and how, despite the heroes always facing danger and going through terrible hardships, by the end of the book there was always a happy ending waiting for them.
But ultimately, those were merely fanciful fairy tales, and Tovio wasn’t so certain that he would be seeing a happy ending to the story that was his life.
“Thank you for taking time out of your day to see me, Ms. Gabara.”
“Not at all, Miss Birchwood.”
Komo looked on as Naomi entered the principal’s office and seated herself in the chair next to him, and he felt an awful sinking sensation in his belly. He knew that Miss Birchwood would tell her what had happened, and that would be it for him.
“Would you like to know why I asked you to see me?” Miss Birchwood asked Naomi.
Naomi, not yet aware of the incident that occurred at the school that afternoon, raised an eyebrow in curiosity. “Yes, I would.”
Komo’s teeth clenched behind his closed lips.
“I hate to tell you this, Ms. Gabara, but just a few hours ago, your son attacked and got into a fight with another student.” Miss Birchwood recounted, calmly and deliberately.
Komo looked at his mother, expecting her to be furious with him, but she didn’t look back at him; her eyes were still focused on the principal.
“Why did my son fight another student?” Naomi asked.
Miss Birchwood’s eyes shifted in Komo’s direction. “Would you like to explain why, Mr. Gabara?”
Komo’s throat suddenly felt parched, and he could barely muster the nerve to speak. “He… I…”
“Don’t keep us waiting, Komo,” warned Miss Birchwood.
The boy hesitated; he looked to his mother, then to the principal, and finally looked down, staring into his lap.“He took my ice cream cone, he wouldn’t give it back, then he threw it at my face,” he admitted.
“Mr. Crowler was not seriously injured,” Miss Birchwood went on to explain, “but he is currently in the nurse’s room having his wounds treated. And as for your son, Ms. Gabara, such misconduct would normally warrant a week-long suspension, but since he is relatively new to the school, and it is his first offense, I will waive the suspension… provided he issues an apology, tomorrow morning, to the student that he attacked.”
Apologize to Tad Crowler, the bully who lived to make his life miserable? Komo didn’t plan on it.
“I’ll make sure of it, Miss Birchwood,” responded Naomi.
The principal nodded curtly. “Thank you, that will be all.”
Naomi didn’t utter a single word to Komo during the drive home, and he didn’t say anything either, as the boy was far too preoccupied with thoughts of dread, fearing the punishment that his mother had in store for him once they were home.
Once they were in the house, Komo immediately made haste for the safety of his room, but Naomi caught him before he could make it through the doorway.
“Komo Gabara!” she shouted, making the boy stop in his tracks.
Naomi approached, her brow furrowed and her arms crossed.
“I can’t believe you!” she ranted. “How could you beat up another boy?! And you beat him up over ice cream! Is ice cream really so important to you that you would beat someone up?! Is it? What could you possibly have been thinking?!”
Komo argued his case. “It was Tad’s fault! He wouldn’t give me my ice cream cone, and he kept teasing me! He’s always been teasing me, and he never, ever stops!”
“Then why didn’t you tell a teacher?” Naomi asked.
“Because they hate me! They all hate me!”
In reality, the teachers of Ortoga Elementary didn’t particularly hate Komo, and on some level, he knew he was talking nonsense, but with the way he was being treated, he was ready to believe the lie.
“Everyone there hates me because I’m the new kid, and that’s why they never do anything about Tad! He never gets in trouble!”
Naomi shook her head in doubt. “Everyone does not hate you! And if they did, that’s only because you’re not working hard enough! You had plenty of friends in your old school, and none of the teachers there hated you! What could have changed?”
Komo didn’t stall for a moment to respond to the question. “Everything changed! They changed when we moved! I didn’t want to move, but you forced me! You ruined my life!”
“You do not shout at your mother like that!” Naomi reprimanded. “Just for that, I’m sending you to bed without dinner!”
“I don’t want dinner!” Komo retorted, before he trudged into his room, throwing the door shut behind him. He continued to stew in his anger for a while longer, before he started to cry. He jumped into his bed and buried his face into his pillow, the fabric soaking up the tears he shed.
Komo was crying out the pain he felt, and little did he know that on the other side of his door, his mother was doing the same.
It was 10:00 PM, but Komo couldn’t sleep. While he had said he didn’t want any dinner, he was still a growing child who needed to eat, and the ache of his food-deprived stomach was too much to bear. Komo wondered if his mother had gone to bed by now; if she was, he could sneak to the kitchen and grab something to eat without getting in further trouble. He didn’t know how to cook, but even a cookie or a glass of orange juice would have been enough to tide his appetite over.
Slowly, he turned his doorknob and pushed open the door just a tiny bit, enough to look down the corridor and see if it was safe to find something to eat.
No sign of his mother, and her bedroom door was closed. It was the opportunity he needed.
He fully opened his door, as quietly as possible, and tip-toed down the corridor. He held his breath as he passed by Naomi’s door, ensuring a maximum level of silence.
But strangely, he heard something from inside the room.
It sounded like someone talking. Komo pressed his ear against the door’s surface, trying to listen.
“I just don’t know what to do about Komo,” said Naomi. Was she talking to herself, or to someone else? Komo kept listening.
“The boy’s still causing you trouble?”
Komo recognized the second voice; it was Percival! What was he doing in his mother’s room? Komo almost felt like opening the door to find out, but he was supposed to be in bed.
Naomi retold to Percival the ordeal of the day. “I was out shopping for groceries earlier today, and Miss Birchwood, the principal of Komo’s school, called me! She told me to come see her as soon as possible, and when I did, she told me that my son got into a fight! And when we were home and I punished him, he started yelling at me and saying everyone hated him!”
“I told you about that, didn’t I?” Percival responded. “It’s the classic signs of pre-teen rebellion. Your son is growing unruly, and without discipline, he could end up hurting even more innocent people!”
Komo didn’t know if he would be hurting anyone else, but he knew for himself that Tad Crowler was far from an innocent person.
Percival spoke again, “Why, I myself was quite the feckless troublemaker back when I was his age! My own father was at his wit’s end trying to deal with me!”
“You, a troublemaker?” Naomi’s tone was skeptical. “I couldn’t possibly imagine that.”
“Ah, but that’s the thing,” said Percival. “My father came upon the solution when he saw an advertisement for Stalwart Glen Private Institute.”
“What’s that?” asked Naomi.
“Stalwart Glen Private Institute,” Percival explained, “or SGPI, is a boarding school that takes boys like your son and puts them through rigorous academic courses, and harsh physical regimes, to help them work out the aggression and rebellion they carry. I feel your son may end up better for it, he may even become as upstanding a citizen as myself!”
Komo didn’t understand a large amount of what the man had just said, but he did realize that he wanted to send the boy to yet another school.
“Boarding school?” Naomi inquired. “But, that would mean he’d be out of the house! Who knows how long it would be before I see him again?”
Percival reassured the woman. “A mere six years, my dear. But fret not, the school is only one town over, and he’ll get holidays off, of course. But just think, with your boy being taken care of, we’ll have much more time to spend together!”
Naomi mulled it over. “Well… I guess you should show him around the school, then we’ll see.”
“An excellent suggestion!” Percival affirmed, “Then, tomorrow I shall come to pick him up after school, and show him what SGPI can offer him.”
Six years in some unknown school, to be put through… something, whatever it was that made Percival turn out the way he is now! It seemed almost like a nightmare to Komo, but he knew he wasn’t dreaming – he was still hungry, after all.
He couldn’t let that man send him away. But what was Komo to do about it?
There he was, with classmates he couldn’t befriend, and a staff who couldn’t help him.
A man he lacked respect for was controlling the course of his life, and his mother was willing to let it happen.
With all that in mind, Komo started coming up with a plan.
“Do you have something you want to tell me, Komo?”
Komo, who had been eating his breakfast cereal quietly, swiftly lifted his head.
“…Huh?” was all he could blurt out. Did his mother know already? Did she know that her son had eavesdropped on the conversation she had with Pervical last night? Or that he was planning something after school?
Naomi sighed, and prompted her son. “I’m sorry, Mom, because…?”
“Oh!” Komo caught on. “I’m sorry, Mom, because I yelled at you, yesterday.”
“That’s better,” Naomi remarked. “I hope you’re ready to apologize to your classmate as well.”
“Yeah,” said the boy.
“And don’t forget,” his mother added, “after school, Percival will be picking you up. He has something important to show you.”
“No, he won’t,” Komo muttered under his breath, inaudible to anyone else.
The school day was overall another unremarkable one – with the exception of Komo giving his promised apology to Tad Crowler, while Principal Birchwood witnessed. No good came of the apology however; once the principal’s back was turned, Tad was back to bullying Komo.
Once 3:00 PM came, Komo didn’t make his way to the school’s front gates. Instead, he made for the ends of the playground, the boundary closed off by a chain fence much taller than Komo, but climbable with some effort.
Komo couldn’t afford to stall for too long, but he thought for a moment. Was this the right thing to do?
But then he remembered, it was either this, or boarding school until he was seventeen.
He took his red backpack, heavier than usual due to packing it as full as he could, and tossed it with a mighty swing. It soared over the fence to land on the other side, the landing cushioned by the grass.
Next, it was his turn. Gripping the mesh of thin wires, Komo clambered up the fence, managing to scale it in a few minutes, before jumping down, right next to his bag.
For Komo it was a rough landing, but nothing he could not walk off.
“I guess this is it…” Komo said to himself.
With that, he walked off.
Komo had only lived in Ortoga for two months and one day, but he was fairly confident that he knew his way around the town. The destination he sought was the local library; Naomi had taken him there around a week ago while she borrowed some novels, and Komo knew that there, they kept maps of all kinds – including, he thought, maps leading to Sandcreston. Once he had the map and drew his own copy, he would be able to return to his hometown, where he belonged. He figured that Eddy’s parents wouldn’t mind if he stayed at his place; they enjoyed his company, after all.
What Komo had not counted on was that his sense of direction would fail him, and by the time he was able to locate the library, it was 6:00 PM, and the library was already closed.
While only a minor setback, it did mean that Komo needed to find a place to sleep until tomorrow, when the library would open, and he could resume his plan.
But where could he stay? Besides Naomi and Percival, he didn’t know anyone else in Ortoga well enough to ask about sleeping over, and he didn’t much care for the idea of sleeping without a roof over his head.
The sun was setting, and Komo needed to find somewhere to hide out before it got dark. The minutes passed while he meandered – passersby seemed not to pay him any mind. Komo realized he was running out of time when he saw the lights coming on; the lights from the street lamp, and the lights inside every house he could see.
Every house, it seemed, but one.
This house, a modest single-story building, was rarely talked about among Ortogans, but most knew it to be an abandoned property. It was usually said that the owner of the house had either died or fled the country as many as twenty years ago – the exact details tended to vary between individual accounts.
Komo walked towards the house without lights, and as he approached, he felt grass tickling at his shins – the front lawn looked to be quite unkempt. He tried peering into a window, but it was too dark to see beyond the curtains inside, and he ended up with an old spider web clinging to his shirt, which he didn’t wipe off until a short while after.
He tried the front door; there was no doorbell button to press, only a brass hoop held in place by a hinge. While fixtures like those were used to knock on the door, Komo instead elected to use his hands, tapping the door fairly forcefully.
“Anyone home?” he asked, receiving no reply even after five minutes.
It was just as he had hoped, the house was completely uninhabited. If nobody lived there, nobody would mind if he stayed there, if only for a night… That did however lend itself to a new problem.
The front door was firmly locked, and the doorknob would not turn, as Komo had found out after many attempts. Walking around the house’s perimeter, the boy found himself in the backyard, as derelict as the house’s front. Komo tried opening the back door, but he was met with the same result; a knob unyielding to all the force he could apply.
The back door did have one key difference from the front – a keyhole, the old kind large enough to fit a drinking straw through. Komo thought about picking the lock open, like the spies from a movie he once watched. All it had taken the movie characters was a simple paper clip, and while Komo didn’t have one among his supplies, he surmised that there would be a similar implement lying around in the vicinity, if he looked around.
However, as soon as he turned to begin his search, he took a wrong step, and accidentally kicked over an old clay flowerpot, about the size of a sand pail, filled with dried soil and the remains of a long-withered plant. The toppled pot tumbled down the small stairway that led to the door, and then landed on the concrete ground, shattering into pieces.
Komo had watched the entirety of the pot’s perilous descent, and among the dirt, leaves, and clay shards, he saw something unusual. He crouched down to have a better look, and he could hardly believe what had been hiding within the pot.
It was caked in dry, crumbling clods of earth, but it was indeed a key; apparently the house’s former owner had buried it inside of the flowerpot and then forgotten about it. Brushing off the last of the clinging dirt, an intrigued Komo took the key and fed it into the door’s keyhole. It was a certain fit.
Then came the next step; the boy turned the key, clockwise. For all of one second, there was some resistance as he turned, until he heard a clicking sound, and the key began to turn smoothly. Komo then tried turning the doorknob once more.
It now yielded easily to his hand; the door was unlocked.
Relief came over Komo; dusk was already giving way to night, and stars began to dot the violet-hued skies. Closing the door behind him, he entered the house. Reaching into his backpack, Komo located his toy flashlight, and switched it on. He knew it would come in handy, not only to look around in dark spaces; as Eddy had always said during sleepovers, flashlights were the best method to ward off malevolent spirits that lurked in the dark.
Waving the light around, Komo searched for a good place to rest. Aside from the musty odor of the place, and the lights being completely non-functional, it almost reminded him of the house he was living in, the one he had run away from. He was able to find a room with an old mattress laid upon the floor, without even a pillow for additional comfort. Still, Komo found it adequate, as he sprawled across the mattress and waited for sleep to come.
A lifetime of nights to come in Sandcreston, he felt, were worth one night in this dilapidated house.
“Percival? Where’s Komo?”
For hours, the man had waited for that purple-haired urchin to come out from the school and into his car. When the boy didn’t show, Percival came to the conclusion that he had somehow evaded his gaze and sneaked his way home. As Naomi had just proven with her question, his guess was incorrect.
“Well, how can I put this…” Percival began.
“Don’t tell me you lost him when you took him to see that boarding school!” exclaimed Naomi. “What if he’s still there?”
Percival thought hard to fabricate a believable excuse. “Ah, well, you see… that’s exactly it! I took your son to the boarding school, I did. And that’s when… he thought, he thought the school was so wonderful, he, er, wanted to spend a night there, just to have a… a taste of the SGPI experience!” He looked at the woman’s face, wondering if he convinced her.
“Komo liked the school that much?” she asked.
“Why, yes!” replied Percival with a hearty nod. “He was quite enthralled with it all! I’d wager that he’s already starting to grow into a fine young man!”
“I wish you had called to ask me about letting Komo stay there first,” said Naomi, “but I guess he’ll be fine for one night. Like you said, it’s the finest school there is.”
“Indeed,” Percival affirmed. “First thing tomorrow, I’ll go out and fetch him for you, and you may see for yourself how much he improves in a single night there!”
The man may have seemed confident and composed, but inside he could not deny the quandary he now faced. How was he to locate that brat within the next day, and then persuade him into playing along with the lie he had just weaved to his mother?
It seemed a daunting task, but for the sake of the lovely Naomi, Percival could not fail.
With all the effort he could muster, Tovio trudged on. His eyes had fallen upon a stream of running water in the distance, and it seemed like his only hope. Each step towards the stream he took was a laborious one, but it was one step closer to salvation.
By the time Tovio had made it there, he was almost at his limit. He collapsed forward, landing on his belly, and then crawled towards the flowing water. It seemed safe enough to drink; the water was clean enough that the stream bed was clearly visible.
Tovio cupped his hands and collected the water in front of him. While tepid and tasting completely different to the tap water of his house, at this moment it felt to the boy like the most refreshing, thirst-sating beverage he could imagine. Dunking his head inside the stream, he continued to drink of the outpour of water, swallowing as much as he was able.
When he lifted his head, his thirst completely quenched, Tovio saw a dog sitting a few feet to the right, lapping at the water. Where had this dog come from? Tovio didn’t see any tag or collar around its neck, and thought that it might have been a stray dog. It reminded the boy of Emile, his own dog that he had lost in the car accident. This dog was a little larger than Emile, and its fur was hazelnut-brown, but all the same, Tovio felt something for the stray, a need for companionship he had been sorely lacking. He could only imagine that the dog was of the same ilk; abandoned by, or separated tragically from its owner – or perhaps it had never had one to begin with.
Tovio approached the stray, who was still drinking. “Hello there,” he greeted. “My name’s Tovio.”
He reached out to stroke the dog’s fur, but it quickly turned its head towards the boy, and began to growl, angrily baring its fangs. It snapped its jaws at Tovio’s hand, but he was able to withdraw his arm just in time. This dog was not a friendly one, Tovio realized too late, and he turned around to run away, as fast as he could. The belligerent dog didn’t delay in giving chase to the boy, ready to punish him for encroaching upon its personal territory.
Tovio kept running, but he was still a little tired, and he stumbled, falling down on his face. He could hear the dog’s fierce barks, getting closer and closer. He curled up, tucking his head under his arms, and clenched his eyes shut.
This was the end for him, thought the boy. Now that he couldn’t run away, the dog would bite him to death, and eat him up.
But the pain of sharp teeth biting into him never came. And then, Tovio heard, the barking stopped, but there was something else making sounds. As he opened his eyes and sat upright, Tovio saw that it wasn’t something else making the noise – it was someone else.
It was a boy that looked to be around his age, his purple hair longer than Tovio’s, and his skin much more tan. This purple-haired boy had fended off the attacking dog with a wood branch he had found on the ground, swinging it at the attacking animal until it decided to give up on its quarry.
Once the dog had fled, the purple-haired boy cast the branch aside, and turned to Tovio, who flinched a little at seeing his face; this new person was a stranger after all… though a stranger that had just saved him from a vicious dog attack.
“Are you okay?” asked the strange boy.
Tovio was still a little shaken, and his mouth couldn’t quite form a coherent reply. The purple-haired boy didn’t mind too much, and crouched down, offering his outstretched hand. Tovio took his hand, and he found himself being lifted to his feet, with the other boy’s help.
Managing to find his voice, Tovio said the first thing that had come to his mind.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Komo,” replied the purple-haired boy. “Komo Gabara.”
It was by sheer luck and good timing that Komo had found the white-haired boy, and saved him from the dog.
After spending the night in the abandoned house, Komo was all rested, and ready to enact upon his plan to return home to Sandcreston. After verifying the supplies in his backpack, he saw that his water bottle was only half-full, and thought he would need more to drink for his trek. The plumbing in the abandoned house didn’t seem to function, and he couldn’t obtain any water from the faucets there. Thus, he had set out to look for a place to refill his bottle, and that place had ended up being the stream.
After filling his bottle to the brim, Komo observed a white-haired boy in the distance, drinking from the stream and then being chased by the stray dog. He didn’t recognize that boy from school or anywhere else, and it looked like he needed help.
Now that Komo could get a good look at the other boy, he thought, from seeing the disheveled clothing and hair, that this young child had been through a great deal of tribulation, much like himself. Yet Komo saw something more in this boy, a kindly innocence in those dewy, blue eyes that he didn’t see in boys like Tad Crowler, or anyone he knew in Ortoga Elementary for that matter.
There was something for sure about this boy that made Komo feel unusual inside.
“I… I’m Tovio,” stammered the white-haired boy. “I’m Tovio Rousteau.”
“Tovio? That’s a nice name,” Komo said. That comment made Tovio smile, the first smile he had felt in many days. “Where did you come from? I’ve never seen you around here.”
Tovio didn’t quite know how to respond; it was a long and sad story after all. “Well…”
But something cold and wet had touched his cheek. The same thing happened to his hand, and it didn’t stop. He and Komo looked up, and they saw that it was beginning to rain.
“Come with me,” said Komo, taking Tovio by the hand again. “I know where we can stay.”
Komo had led Tovio to the abandoned house to take shelter from the rainfall, and as they sat upon the old mattress, Komo saw that the other boy was starting to shiver and chatter his teeth.
“Are you cold?” Komo asked, to which Tovio nodded.
Fortunately for the colder boy, Komo was in fact prepared for such a situation. He reached into his backpack, and pulled out a blue sweater, the very same he had received on his eleventh birthday. Though he didn’t fancy wearing the sweater much, he had taken it with him out of sentimentality; the sweater served as a reminder of his mother’s love.
Tovio was eager to put on the sweater, slipping the fabric through his head and rolling back the long sleeves that covered his hands. It wasn’t too much, but Tovio felt a little warmer.
“Thank you, Komo,” he said, before giving the purple-haired boy a hug. Tovio had missed the comforting feeling that a hug brings, and as Komo realized, he missed it as well, reciprocating the embrace.
After almost ten seconds of hugging, Tovio began to speak again.
“Is this your home? It doesn’t look very cozy.”
Komo chuckled sheepishly.”Uh, it’s a long story.”
Tovio replied, “That’s okay. I still need to tell you my story, it’s long too.”
“Okay, I’ll go first,” Komo insisted.
He told Tovio about how he wanted to learn how to swim, in order to reunite with his father Ken, and how Naomi, his mother, had promised to teach him when he turned eleven, before that promise was broken when she announced that they would be moving from Sandcreston to Ortoga. Komo went on to describe his new life in the new town, with Percival, the man he disliked, and Tad, the bully who had pushed him into a fight, and into trouble with the principal and Naomi. He explained that Percival planned to send him to a boarding school for six years, and that was why he escaped and was hiding out in this old house.
Komo’s story had in turn saddened Tovio to tears.
“When I get back to Sandcreston,” said Komo, “I’ll learn how to swim, and I can meet my dad again.”
Tovio dried his eyes. “But Komo, I don’t think he is still living in the ocean. What if he drowned?”
It suddenly clicked to Komo. When he was eight years old, he had tried to walk into the ocean, and ended up almost sinking, until Naomi rescued him. Komo had barely been able to survive a few minutes in the sea without drowning; he could only imagine that after all this time, his father wouldn’t be coming back. Was that why Percival was so interested in his mother, to become a second father to Komo? He didn’t like the sound of that one bit.
“I’m so sorry, Komo,” Tovio apologized, offering his sympathy. “But.. my father said that when someone dies, part of them still lives on, and goes somewhere far away. We can’t see them, but they can see us. Your father might be there too… just like my mother.”
“What happened to her?” asked Komo.
Tovio began to tell Komo all about how Tomas, his father, had left to go on a business trip, and how he had later found his mother Viola, dead from her encounter with the burglar, which led to Tovio and his dog running out of food, and chasing down a truck, resulting in Emile being run over. Next came the part about walking for hours and finding the bus stop, but ending up in the wrong town, which turned out to be Ortoga, and that was where Tovio met Komo.
Komo was deeply moved by Tovio’s tale, and came to the realization that they were two of a kind; both of them were currently boys who had left their home, and had their families broken apart. Perhaps they were brought together for a reason, he mused.
“What will you do now?” asked Tovio. “Are you still going to go back home?”
Komo had to think about it. “I dunno. But I want us to stick together. You need somewhere to stay, and I… well, I think I like you.”
“You like me?” Tovio was still feeling a little sad after they had shared the stories of their experiences, but it was still nice to hear that, he thought.
Komo started to blush, and he ducked his head. “Uh, well, it’s a different kind of like. You’re really nice, and friendly, and I think you’re pretty cute. Yeah, I know we’re both boys, but that’s how I feel.”
But Tovio didn’t find it strange or wrong, and it didn’t bother him that Komo was feeling that way. In fact, Tovio owed Komo his life, and admired his bravery, especially in standing up to the stray dog.
And Tovio had to admit that Komo was cute too. He was almost like a prince from a fairy tale… and he liked to think that princes didn’t always have to save princesses; who was to say that a prince could not save another prince?
“It’s okay!” Tovio encouraged. “I like you too, Komo!” This time it was the white-haired boy’s turn to blush. “I never had a chance to thank you for saving me from the dog,” he explained. “May I thank you?”
“Of course!” said Komo, but what came next was something he had never seen coming; Tovio had leaned in and kissed the other boy right in the cheek, making the smooching noise that couples always made when they kissed.
In spite of everything they had been through, in that instant, Tovio and Komo were as happy as could be.
The rain outside didn’t show any signs of letting up, and neither boy wanted to walk around outside in such weather, so they continued to stay inside. Whenever it rained in Haveena, one of Tovio’s pastimes was to read a good book – though he had always enjoyed that regardless of whether it rained or not.
One room of the abandoned house looked to be a study of some sort, and there was an entire bookshelf full of thick, brick-like tomes… but they proved dusty, and not to Tovio’s taste in reading material – they weren’t stories, but rather textbooks that a scholar in the field of psychology would reference.
“Hey Tovio,” said Komo, finding him in the study, “you looking for a book to read?”
Tovio nodded, but he put back all of the books he had pulled from the shelf. “These books are too big and hard for me read. I can’t understand them.”
“Hang on, I’ve got some comic books in my bag,” Komo suggested, before he went out to the bedroom to retrieve his backpack. He returned to the study, pulling out a comic from inside of the bag and presenting it to the other boy.
“Let’s read it together,” said Tovio, and Komo agreed, sitting next to him as he opened the comic book to its first page. It was one of Komo’s favorites he had brought with him for his journey, a story about superheroes fighting monsters that came from underground. When they had finished reading the comic, Komo brought out the next one, and they kept reading, until Komo had no more to offer.
“That’s all the books I have,” he said, “but there’s a library in this town. You should check it out sometime.”
“That sounds nice,” Tovio agreed.
Komo laughed to himself. “You know, they have maps in the library too. If you wanted to, you could copy a map that leads to your town, so you know the way home. That’s what I was planning to do.”
“You were?” Tovio realized that although meeting Komo was a wonderful experience that he would not soon forget, they were from two different places in the end, and they would have no choice but to part ways if they intended on returning to their homes.
Komo shrugged. “Well… I guess I have to,” he admitted. “That’s my home, and we can’t stay here forever. I only have enough food in my bag to last one more day.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Tovio said, looking quite disappointed.
“What’s wrong?” asked Komo, and before Tovio replied, he hugged Komo again, with moisture welling up in his eyes.
“I really, really wish I could go with you, but my father is going to come back from his trip, and if I come with you, I’d never be able to tell him where I went when he came back.”
That was true, Komo admitted. He tried to think of a solution. “I know, what if I came to your home with you?”
“But that’s not fair to you,” Tovio replied. “My home isn’t near the sea, and you told me you wanted to learn how to swim… There’s nowhere to swim there.”
He was right, Komo thought to himself. There didn’t look to be any way for them to remain together and both get what they wanted. Just when they had found each other, and in doing so, found the greatest friendship they had ever known, they now found that fate was standing in their path, no way through without the two of them separating.
“So I guess… we’ll have to say goodbye,” Komo concluded.
“I’ll miss you, Komo,” said Tovio, trying in vain to hold back his tears.
Komo started to cry as well. “I’ll miss you too, Tovio.” Suddenly, he reached out to cradle the white-haired boy’s head in his hand, pulling Tovio’s face closer to his, and closer, until they were touching at the lips.
To preserve the memory of their serendipitous meeting, Komo had given Tovio a kiss he would never forget.
Breaking the kiss, Komo was the first to speak what they were both thinking.
“I love you, Tovio Rousteau.”
“And I love you too, Komo Gabara.”
With those words, they felt their newfound friendship beginning to grow into something more.
“We still need to go find the maps in the library,” Komo added, “but I just wanted to make this moment unforgettable.”
Tovio smiled a sweet smile that made the other boy blush. “It worked, because I’ll never forget this. Oh, I almost forgot!”
He was still wearing the sweater that Komo had let him wear. Tovio removed it from his person, folded it as neatly as he could, and gave it back to the purple-haired boy. “I should give this back to you.”
Komo was about to accept, but he wondered if the sweater was better off going to Tovio. He wouldn’t be needing a sweater in the warm shores of Sandcreston, and maybe the mother’s love held in the fabric would be more comforting to a boy who didn’t have a mother of his own.
“On second thought,” Komo said, “you can keep it. It’s my keepsake to you!”
“Okay!” As quickly as he had taken it off, Tovio put the sweater back on. “Are you sure you want me to have it? It’s a really nice sweater.”
Komo nodded vehemently. “Definitely sure. It looks better on you than it does on me!”
With that matter all settled, they were about to head outside to look for Ortoga’s public library, but a loud knocking noise had interrupted them.
“Open this door,” a voice stated. It sounded like it was coming from outside.
Tovio and Komo gasped. Neither boy recognized the voice. Who was looking for them, they wondered, and how did this mystery person know where they were hiding out?
Tovio and Komo waited in silence, as the knocking on the front door continued. The boys were quite frightened, as they had no idea who was trying to come in.
Komo took the first initiative; the door didn’t have a peephole to see who was standing outside, but he was able to part the curtains just enough to catch a glimpse of the person.
“Who’s there?” asked Tovio.
He had to take another look to be certain. “It’s someone in a blue uniform. He’s probably a policeman!” Komo announced.
Tovio gulped nervously. Were they in trouble for hiding out inside this house? They had to escape before the police could force their way inside.
“Let’s get out of here!” Tovio exclaimed.
Komo thought that a good idea, and he quickly refilled his backpack with all of his supplies. They made haste to exit through the back door, but to their horror, another police officer had the same idea. The door was still unlocked, and the woman in uniform entered the abandoned house. Her very presence and stature were enough to bring Tovio and Komo to a complete halt.
“Please come with me, boys,” said the police woman, her tone commanding authority. Tovio and Komo didn’t resist at all as they were led to the police car, which took them to Ortoga’s police station.
The boys were brought before Ortoga’s head of police, Chief Ernest Landon. “Now, don’t worry too much, kids,” he assured, “I’m sure y’all didn’t mean to cause no trouble, but we got a call from someone who saw two boys walking towards the ol’ abandoned house on Vitaro Way. I know it’s mighty tempting to have yourselves a look-see in such a place, but little boys shouldn’t be playing where it’s not safe.”
Tovio and Komo sat next to each other as they listened to Chief Landon, holding each other by the hands, hoping that the policeman would be merciful towards them. They hadn’t hurt anyone or damaged anything, and they hadn’t even stayed in the house for one full day. Still, being brought to a police station can be quite a harrowing experience to a young child, regardless of circumstances.
“Since there’s no harm done,” continued the policeman, “I see no reason to punish y’all. But I am quite afraid your parents will have to hear about this.” He pointed to Tovio first. “Now, son, what’s your name? Don’t be shy now.”
Tovio looked deeply into Komo’s eyes, a twilight shade of violet that matched his hair, and he was able to pluck up enough courage to trust Chief Landon.
“Tovio,” stated the boy, “Tovio Rousteau.”
Officer Landon’s brow creased. “Rousteau?” He hummed in thought. “Are you, by any chance, the child of Tomas Rousteau?”
Tovio gasped, like something had hit him in the stomach. How did this person know about his father?
“Y-yes, I am,” he replied.
Now it was Chief Landon’s turn to gasp, albeit more quietly than the boy. “Well, this is quite the unexpected turn of events, if I do say so myself. You may not know it, son, but the word is that your house was broken into, and your dear mother… Well, she’s in a better place now, isn’t she?”
Solemnly, Tovio nodded, and Komo released his hand to pat him on the back.
The chief went on, “Word of that crime spread out from Haveena to all the other towns in the country! We knew that the family had a child, and nobody in Haveena could find him, but all this time you were here in Ortoga! You’re quite a ways from your home, son. I’ll need to call the police in Haveena about this matter, and they’ll try to get to your father!”
Chief Landon left the room for a minute, and the two boys looked at each other again, wondering what would happen. When he came back, he sat down again in his chair, and turned to Komo.
“Now as for you, what might your name be?” he asked.
Komo replied, clearly and confidently. “I’m Komo Gabara.”
“Gabara, is it?” mused Chief Landon. “If memory serves me right, you and your mother went and moved here quite a while ago. I’ll be calling your ma, and she’ll know what to do with you.”
Once more, Chief Landon took his leave, leaving Tovio and Komo’s nerves aglow with apprehension.
The purple-haired boy looked to the doorway, and saw his mother, and Chief Landon behind her. While Naomi Gabara was quite surprised to see another boy, one she had never met, looking back at her, she was more focused on her own son, whom she thought was still taking an overnight stay in boarding school. She didn’t know what to make of her current state of emotions, but there was clearly relief in her mind from seeing her child.
“What are you doing here, Komo?” asked Naomi. “How did you get back to Ortoga by yourself?”
Komo was confused. “What do you mean? I didn’t leave Ortoga yet.”
“But didn’t Percival take you to see that other school?” Naomi reminded.
“Well…” Komo began, but he was a little hesitant. With a deep breath, he chose to tell his mother the truth. “I was scared of where he was going to take me. So I… was hiding from him.”
“Why didn’t you come home and tell me?” asked his mother, with a puzzled face.
Komo continued to bring his true feelings forth. “I thought you wanted me to go there too. You always listen to him, because you like him better than me!”
To the boy’s surprise, Naomi gave him a tight, heartfelt hug.
“Komo…” she said, “No matter what, you’ll always be the most important person in my life, because you’re my son, my very own flesh and blood! I know you didn’t want to move here, and I know I’ve been hard on you, but it’s only because I want you to be safe. I couldn’t live with myself if you ended up like your father… I wish I had told you the truth sooner, but he–”
“I know,” said Komo, “He might have drowned, but he’s still watching me from somewhere… right?”
Naomi smiled. “Of course! I just know that he would be proud of what a strong young man you grew up to be!”
Tovio, who had quietly observed the reunion between mother and son, was startled when Naomi had started to talk to him.
“Hang on a minute, I recognize you from the news! How did you end up in Ortoga?” It was then that Naomi noticed that Tovio was wearing Komo’s bowtie sweater, his eleventh birthday gift. “And that sweater! Did my son give it to you?”
Tovio nodded. “I was cold, and he gave it to me,” he said. Naomi then looked again to Komo, beaming with approval.
“That boy lost his mother, and you took care of him when he ended up here. He must have been so lonely and scared, and you saved him! You’re really growing up to become a mature adult, my son.”
With tears of joy in her eyes, she hugged Komo and Tovio together.
“Yessir, you’ve got a good son there,” said Chief Landon. “Now I’d reckon that the other boy’s pappy will be taking a while yet to arrive here. Ma’am, why don’t y’all keep him at your place for the time being? I’m sure as heck he’d like to be in a house more than a police station. And don’t worry none, son, when your old man gets here, I’ll tell him where to find you!”
“Can we, Mom?” Komo asked excitedly. “Can Tovio stay with us for now?”
“That would be wonderful,” Naomi affirmed.
Naomi drove Tovio and Komo to their house in Ortoga, and when they approached the front door, they saw that Percival was waiting there.
Komo hid behind his mother, and Tovio hid behind Komo. From Komo’s story, Tovio felt right away that this man was bad news.
“My dear, so good to see you!” Percival greeted the woman. He had spent the day searching for Komo, as he had promised, but had come up short in his efforts. Nonetheless, he had formulated an excuse to cover the situation. “I tried to fetch your son from the SGPI, but he wouldn’t budge an inch! He truly and honestly loves that school, and he wanted to start the semester right away! I was just going to see you about sending for his personal effects…”
Naomi wouldn’t have a word of the man’s lies, and Komo emerged from behind her, waving tauntingly with a mischievous grin.
Sweat was forming at Percival’s forehead; he took a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe it off. “My, my, this is… quite awkward, I’d say.” He stammered, thinking of how to salvage his dignity. “It would appear, then, that you personally got your son to choose for himself what to bring home. Yes, that would be correct, my dear?”
“Percival Cornelius Thistles... Why did you lie to me?” Naomi asked.
The man sighed in resignation, and confessed. “Very well. I lied to you, sweet Naomi, because I could never bear to see you in distress. And quite frankly, when the boy didn’t show, I assumed he had grown tired of the oppression of his elders and ran away!”
Komo flinched. Percival wasn’t too far off from the truth there.
“I told you,” continued the man, “children only grow more unruly as they get older, and you would be better off without them! If I may be so bold, it would not have mattered to me whether your son ran away or got sent to the SGPI. As long as we have each other, my dear, do we really need anyone else?”
Naomi was now very indignant with Percival. “That’s a terrible thing to say! My son may not be perfect, but he’s a good boy who tries his best! What good will sending him away to a boarding school do, if he ends up becoming like you, a dishonest, two-faced liar that looks down on innocent children? All he needs to stay on the right track is a good, loving family, and if you don’t want to be part of that, I suggest you leave us!”
Pervical scowled. “Hmph, you would spurn me so easily, after I was gracious enough to invite you to this wonderful town? After the strings I pulled to afford you a place to live on your meager budget? Someday, you will rue the choice you have made, you and your nasty brat of a son! I bid you good day, woman!”
With those parting words, Percival stormed off, across the street into his own house.
While Tovio and Komo high-fived in celebration, Naomi sighed; while Percival’s true colors were revealed, and her son was safe, she still needed a good male role model for Komo… and suddenly, she didn’t much fancy the idea of continuing to live in Ortoga, so close to that pompous, self-righteous blowhard.
“You boys should wash up,” said the woman. “I’ll get some dinner started, you two must be starving.”
After a hearty dinner, Tovio and Komo decided to head to bed. The worst of it was over now, and while their time together would be coming to an end soon, they had been granted a momentary reprieve from their separation, until Tovio’s father returned to reclaim his son.
Komo only had the one bed in his room, and it was small enough that he and Tovio had to huddle together to have enough space.
“Your mother is nice,” said Tovio, as they lied in bed together, staring into the darkness of the bedroom at night. “I like her.”
“Ha ha,” Komo laughed. “She didn’t seem so nice when she yelled at me for fighting Tad Crowler.”
Tovio had to agree, Naomi was quite fearsome when she was in such a mood. “Yeah. I hope I never meet Tad. He sounds so mean.”
Komo reassured his friend. “You probably won’t have to worry about him, unless you go to my school. Do you have anyone like Tad in your school?”
“Ohh, I don’t go out to a school,” Tovio corrected, “my parents home-school me.”
“You stay home for school? That’s so cool!” Komo exclaimed.
“It’s nice, but I wouldn’t mind going somewhere else for school,” Tovio admitted. “I’m almost always stuck at home. This is the first night I’ve slept in another house.”
“Not me,” said Komo. “In Sandcreston, I had a friend called Eddy Banks. I slept over there lots of times! Did I ever tell you about Eddy?”
Tovio hadn’t, but he didn’t say anything. He had already fallen asleep, his arms wrapped around the other boy. When Komo realized this, he took Tovio into his arms as well, and closed his eyes, drifting off into slumber.
The next morning, Komo didn’t go to school, but Naomi didn’t mind. They were both waiting for Tomas Rousteau to come to Ortoga for his son.
After Viola’s death, the police of Haveena had called Tomas as soon as they had found out where he had traveled for his business convention, and he had to cancel the rest of his excursion to return home as soon as he could. Tomas was fraught with grief over his wife’s fate and his son’s disappearance, greatly overcome with depression until the Haveena police told him that the police department of Ortoga had a boy in their custody under the name of Tovio Rousteau.
With the possibility of his son being found, Tomas got into his car, and set off for Ortoga.
Chief Landon had called Naomi to let her know that Tomas would be coming to their house today for his son, so the mother and the boys stood by in the living room, waiting for him to arrive.
A few minutes before midday, the doorbell tolled.
Tovio, Komo, and Naomi all approached, and when the woman opened the door, Tovio couldn’t believe who was on the other side.
“Father! Father!” Tovio jumped towards the gray-haired man, holding him as tightly as he could. “I missed you so much!”
Tomas Rousteau returned his son’s embrace. “I missed you too, Tovio, and I’m so relieved that nothing happened to you.”
The boy began to explain everything that had led up to where they found themselves now. “I was so scared! First I saw that it was late, and Mother wasn’t moving, and then when we ran out of food… Oh! I had to borrow some money to buy food, but I lost it! I’m sorry, father!”
But Tomas just nodded. “That doesn’t matter, Tovio. It all doesn’t matter, as long as you’re safe.” The man turned to regard Naomi, offering his hand. “Hello to you, madam. I presume you were the one who found my son here and kept him safe until I returned? You have my sincerest gratitude.”
Naomi took Tomas’s hand, shaking it. “That’s right… but I can’t take all the credit. My son, Komo, found your boy, and took care of him until we found them in an abandoned house!”
“Yeah!” Tovio released his father from his hold, and stood next to Komo, resting his arm on the other boy’s shoulder. “This is Komo! He saved me from a dog that was trying to eat me!”
“Well, that’s very courageous of you, Komo!” Tomas took Komo’s hand to shake it, which he accepted. “If you ever visit Haveena, you are welcome to come by my house whenever you like!”
Tovio and Komo looked deeply into each other’s eyes.
“So, I guess this is it,” said Komo.
“This is it,” agreed Tovio. “I’ll miss you.”
The boys wanted to give each other one final kiss goodbye, but it seemed a little embarrassing with their parents watching them, so they opted for a hug instead.
Tomas couldn’t help but be touched by such a display. “Why, madam! It seems our boys have become quite the inseparable pair. To bring them apart now would be tragic!”
Naomi nodded. “I suppose it would. But come to think of it, that does give me an idea!”
“An idea?” Tomas was intrigued.
“Some unpleasantness came up recently,” Naomi explained, “and I don’t think I can stay here in Ortoga much longer. Tell me, is Haveena a good place to live? How far from here is it?”
Komo gasped, as did Tovio. Was she really suggesting what they thought she was?
“It took quite the drive to get here,” Tomas answered, “but Haveena is peaceful, I would greatly recommend it!”
Naomi looked to Komo. “Then I guess we’ll have to start moving again as soon as we can! You won’t mind, will you. Komo?”
“No way!” Komo was beside himself with joy, as was Tovio. It was almost too good to be true, but what Naomi had suggested was indeed the truth.
After Tomas returned to Haveena, things were steadily getting back to normal for Tovio.
He and his father attended the funeral of Viola, his mother, along with many others in Haveena who knew her and wanted to pay their respects. Remembering what had happened to his mother did make Tovio sorrowful, but as he believed, his mother was watching him from someplace beyond, and he would never forget her.
The burglar who had broken into the Rousteau house and caused Viola’s death was eventually found, and sentenced to years of imprisonment for his crimes, and nights in Haveena were once again safe.
While Tomas decided that it was too soon for the family to have another pet dog to replace the late Emile, Tovio didn’t mind – after his experience with the stray, he didn’t feel quite as strongly about dogs as before.
It took a few days, but the Gabaras were all ready to leave Ortoga. Principal Birchwood bade Komo farewell, and wished him the best for whatever came next in his life, and many of his classmates, and surprisingly, Mr. Foley too, were sad to see him go; the bespectacled, dark green-haired boy, Verdin Harverson, even gave Komo a Pixie Patrol trading card as a memento of his time there.
Komo didn’t know it, and wasn’t planning to get into the game, but it was a very rare and useful card.
Komo didn’t find Tad Crowler among the party of students seeing him off; the bully had caught a fever and couldn’t make it, but Komo was just glad to be rid of him for good.
Naomi went over Percival’s head, to his real estate agency, intending to sell their house in Ortoga. While she would still have the mortgage to pay off, and selling the property was overall a negative profit for her, she was much too eager to leave Ortoga behind her to be bothered about it.
When at last they were ready to move, Komo could hardly keep still in Naomi’s car. He was really excited to see what Haveena was like, and not to mention, excited to meet Tovio again.
As it turned out, Komo ended up becoming next-door neighbors with Tovio; Mr. Jeremy Leach, the elderly neighbor, was willing to rent out his house to the Gabaras, serving as their landlord. To Komo’s surprise, Mr. Leach had his own in-ground pool; Naomi had given it some thought, and decided that it would be acceptable for Komo to learn how to swim in it.
To celebrate their move to Haveena, the Gabaras had invited the Rousteaus next door for dinner, and after they ate, Tovio and Komo changed into their swimsuits, heading to the pool.
Sitting at the pool’s edge, splashing his feet in the water, Komo watched Tovio swim across the pool’s width and without stopping, impressed by his swimming ability.
“You’re fast, Tovio,” noted Komo, “When I learn how to swim, let’s have a race!”
Tovio laughed, emerging from the water. “Sounds like a plan!”
Komo smiled, enjoying the cool water of the pool on his legs, and the company of his best friend. “My mom says that next summer, we’ll have a vacation in Sandcreston, you, me, her, and your dad! It’ll be great!”
“We’ll be just like a family!” said Tovio, as he lifted himself out of the pool to sit next to Komo.
“Hey, you’re right,” Komo concurred. “You think your dad and my mom might end up getting married?”
Tovio looked shocked. “But if they did… that would make us brothers! That would be strange!”
“Why’s that?” asked Komo.
“Because,” explained Tovio, “I don’t think of you like a brother. You’re more like…” Tovio couldn’t finish his sentence, as he covered his blushing face.
“Like what?” Komo prompted, trying to playfully tease the other boy.
“You know what,” answered Tovio coyly, as he held Komo’s hand, and leaned in to kiss him on the lips, sharing a kiss that only lovers could share.
The sorrows of the past were all but forgotten now that these two boys had found each other, and while they could not say for certain what the future had in store for them, Tovio and Komo knew that as long as they were together, they had nothing to fear, because they both had someone to love, and someone who loved them, and would be there for them, no matter what.
The story of how tragic circumstances had brought together two boys from different towns, and how the meeting changed them forever.
This is an original story based on two original characters I had made up some time ago.
I had outlined the story in mid-2016, but had not found the time to write it up until now.