Alex Reynard

The Library

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Chapter Three

From then on, life was pretty darn terrific.

Coral fit right in at the Nacker household like a book on a shelf. Skeeto was in a constant state of excitement at having a new friend to share all his favorite toys, jokes, and secrets with. And whenever the mouse wasn't helping out Tak on the boat, he was helping out Kat with her pottery. Adobe, she called it. It was messy, but Coral soon found himself enjoying the squishy feel between his fingers. Kat liked having a helper who was "quiet as a mouse". She taught him how to shape pots on the wheel. They'd decorate them together, then she'd rev up the RV's engine to power the firing kiln. Some days he'd accompany her to the market and help sell them.

One of the first things they all did together was enrolling Coral in school. The morning after his arrival, they all dressed nicely and headed to the fanciest dwelling in the village: the entrance was a semi trailer transformed into Greek columns. This was where Scarlatina's two oldest residents lived, a married pair who taught classes together. They introduced themselves as Carms and Cincurro (rather than Mr. and Mrs.. Coral began noticing a pattern of people going by their first names rather than family names). The two teachers were covered in so many rings and ribbons they looked like punk pinatas. One was lean, the other plump, and both were pretty wrinkly. Still, their eyes were blazingly alert. Coral felt like he was being scanned with lasers as they inspected him.

Carms and Cincurro inspected every inch of the amnesiac albino mouse. They asked a lot of questions which Coral couldn't provide answers to. They were puzzled by his eye-lines and missing fingers and especially by the illuminated slit in his palm. They'd never seen anything like it before. Mr. Carms poked inside with a sterilized instrument and said there was some kind of mass in there. But no amount of probing could get it out, and Coral was wincing in pain the entire time. Mrs. Cincurro soothed him by petting his ears.

Coral asked if everyone in Scarlatina had woken up in the body sea. It wasn't unheard of, he was told, but most new residents came in via the cliffs. The village was isolated from the rest of Phobiopolis geographically, and hardly anyone else knew it existed. This meant Scarlatins had to be largely self-reliant. Though it also meant they rarely had to deal with nightmare constructs wandering in. "This is likely the safest, most relaxing place in all the land," he was told. He was glad to hear it.

In the end, the two teachers could come to no conclusions about Coral's identity. Though he seemed like a nice young lad and they could see no reason not to let him stay. Coral hadn't realized he'd been taking a citizenship test, but was happy he'd passed.

He started school that same day. As Skeeto explained, most of the people in town who looked like kids weren't really kids, Phobiopolis just made 'em that way. All the kid-kids had to go to school. It took place in a cave (natch) whose front entrance was a car carrier. Kids scampered all over it like a playground until the bell rang. Coral asked Skeeto, if the town was so isolated, where had all the vehicles come from? The kitten shrugged. They were just sorta there when the first settlers arrived, all piled up in a junky heap.

Class structure was interesting. Everyone started out in a big, colorful room together where the teachers took roll call, then played exercise games. After, the kids split up by gender into separate rooms: boys with Carms, girls with Cincurro. Coral was pretty sure he'd never been in a school like this before. He was also glad that neither teacher called on him much that first day, giving him time to observe on his own how everything worked. He was having enough pressure just being the focus of everyone's attention. New kids always got scrutinized. Especially when they still had fur. All day he kept feeling paws sneaking up to touch it. Coral realized pretty quickly he had not used to be a furson well-versed in social skills. The other kids asked him endless questions and he tried to reply as politely and succinctly as he could. At least no one was actively bullying him. The only animosity came from a boy named Palo. On either side of the gender divide, there was one boy and one girl who went to the opposite classroom when the students split up, since it fit their learning style better. These two were fawned over by both groups. Palo was the girls' darling and Viv was the boys' mascot. Now all the girls were 'ooooh'ing at the new kid, and Palo was a bit steamed to be usurped. Coral tried to convey he hadn't meant to topple any status quos.

Compared to dealing with his classmates' constant perusal, schoolwork was pretty easy. All the expected subjects came up: math, science, spelling, music, art. Mr. Carms didn't care if the boys fidgeted, drew, chewed gum or even listened to headphones during his class, so long as they got their work done. He also made games and competitions out of a lot of things. Coral didn't handle the pressure well, tending to be correct more often than he was quick. (He began to wonder if he'd do better on the girls' side. But thought Palo would really hate him then.) Everyone ran around in the gym for a while before lunch to build up an appetite. Coral had been worried about the food, but Skeeto guided him through what everything was. Coral had a hot dog and wondered if it had originally come from Tak and Skeeto's boat. At recess, Coral wanted to just sit and people-watch, but everyone else preferred to watch him. They were all feeling him out, trying to decide where he fit in the hierarchy. Skeeto gained some status just for discovering him.

Afterwards, everyone of both genders rejoined in the bigger classroom for the second half of the day. Coral whispered to Skeeto, asking what the homework load would be like. Skeeto replied that C&C almost never assigned any. "Carms says it's barbarism." Definitely a relief. There was a bit more classwork, then the teachers put on an impromptu lesson about Scarlatina's history and culture. Coral could tell it was for his benefit, but was glad they hadn't explicitly said so. When the bell rang, they asked Coral to stay behind. He wasn't in trouble, they said. They only wanted to know what his first day had been like and what he hoped to learn more about over the school year. It was like a customer satisfaction survey. The mouse had no idea how long he'd be staying, but he found himself not minding the idea of spending a few semesters with two such involved and attentive teachers. And when they let him go for the day, Skeeto was waiting right outside, practically bouncing in anticipation of introducing Coral to his favorite sport.

Swiff, it turned out, involved discs, hoops, and a lot of running. Coral didn't end up being too terrible at it. He discovered he was pretty fast on his feet and had decent aim. The game took place high atop the cliff. The elevator ride was nerve-wracking, but the view was magnificent. Up here were a few small houses, but most of the area was a vast grassy prairie. Kids were kicking balls and running and dancing and riding bikes and even hang-gliding. Coral was wowed. Skeeto rounded up some other kids from class for a game. Coral got to meet Skeeto's friends, Sail and Denny, plus Viv, who proudly wore the label of tomboy.

It turned out he liked playing swiff, and he liked that he wasn't laughed at too much for not knowing what he was doing at first. Although the longer he spent playing in the open air, the more a concern began to rise in him. He asked Skeeto, "Don't you have to check in at home first?" Skeeto gave him a blank look, like that was an unknown concept. Coral shrugged it off, but inside he was dumbstruck. This level of freedom seemed almost... blasphemous. He thought the creeping feeling inside him was akin to being watched. It wasn't until later when he realized that wasn't quite right: it was the lack of being watched. He expected it. Almost needed it. This particular reveal gave him a lot to think about. Maybe he had been a prisoner at one time. It'd be one possible explanation for why he felt the need to ask permission for every decision.

Over the next few days he spent quite a lot of time indoors. He wanted to comfort his nervousness until he was ready to confront it. He got to know Tak and Kat quite well. He paid close attention in school. Of course, Skeeto was unknowingly helping him get over his problem via constant badgering to come outside and have fun. If he'd been left to choose, Coral probably would have just sat by himself, methodically reading every book in the house. But, despite a little groan of resistance every time Skeeto dragged him out into the light, he always ended up enjoying himself once he was there.

Though, he did find plenty of time for reading. Sometimes he even stayed up past his bedtime, sneaking out to the livingroom for moonlight to illuminate the pages. Carms and Cincurro were surprised when they'd first put a flash card in front of the mouse and he'd read the phrases off it with only minor difficulty. This indicated he'd likely been a proficient reader in his old life, and had been in Phobiopolis long enough to overcome the realm's automatic-onset dyslexia. The mere thought of illiteracy horrified Coral so much he doubled his reading efforts.

On the weekends, he'd join Tak and Skeeto out on the Summer Vacation. Acclimating to the ocean of bodies took less time than expected. He guessed it had a lot to do with Scarlatina itself. Any remaining disgust was outweighed by the town's sheer welcoming warmth. Soon he was rooting through pockets and stripping off pants with as little care as unloading groceries. And with two lookouts now, Skeeto no longer had to dart back and forth across the deck. They could both take a side and scan the 'waters'. The most irritating part was reeling in a good prospect and realizing it already had a blue mark. Tak reassured Coral it happened to everyone. The mouse persevered in developing a good eye, and felt proud the first time he spotted a leather coat: good for making chairs and other furniture. Coral liked feeling that he was helping to give back to a family that had showed him so much generosity. Same for when he helped Kat with her pots.

The caring fennec hovered over him rather a lot in regards to his fingerless hand. She'd ask again and again, "Do you need any help with that? Are you sure?" Knowing she cared so much was nice, but it did get a little irritating telling her 'no' so many times. He preferred to practice muddling through on his own, discovering just how much his abbreviated stubs could still do. And his left hand was already gaining dexterity in compensation. Coral challenged himself by checking a beginner's origami book out of the school library. It took a week, but he got all the way through (even that damned pagoda!).

Nevertheless, one day Kat brought home a gift for him, something she'd had custom-made. He opened the beautifully-wrapped box to find a sturdy glove with prosthetic fingers. Coral was awestruck by her thoughtfulness. He slipped it on and for a moment, it felt like he had a normal hand again. Unfortunately, that was the extent of its usefulness. The new fingertips had no feeling in them, so they were hard to control. He couldn't catch a swiff disc even when Skeeto threw it from four feet away. Plus, it made his hand even more noticeable. Kids pointed at it during class. Still, Coral did his best to practice with it as hard as he could whenever Kat was watching. She saw how much he struggled though. She noticed the many times he'd get frustrated with some delicate task, snarl and pull the glove off, then make do with his stumps. And so, when Coral came home from visiting Sail's house one day, Kat said the glove had gone missing. She'd been cleaning, she said. It must have gotten thrown away by accident. They never said a word about it more, but Coral showed his gratitude for her understanding in any unspoken way he could.

Another day, Coral finally deduced the meaning of the decorated piercings nearly everyone wore. He'd spotted strings, yarn, and feathers, but the most popular choice was ribbons. Tak and Kat both had them, threaded through their rings every day. Skeeto had a green one that he wore around his wrist whenever he remembered to. No one scolded him if he forgot, Coral noticed. This suggested they weren't 100% mandatory. Good news, as he'd begun to wonder what everyone else thought of him for not having any. He also observed that the piercings themselves weren't the important part; merely a convenient way to display the decorations. Placement was likewise arbitrary. Coral saw people wearing trimmings on all parts of their bodies. A lot of girls at school wore them on the back of their heads, dangling down like a ponytail. Some boys had short ones over one eyebrow, or lengthwise along their upper arms. And there were so many variations in color, personal style made a better explanation than any kind of social status. The only thing consistent about the decorations was that everyone had them. Eventually it dawned on Coral that all his classmates had a single ribbon, while their parents had more. Yet some of the people in the market also had just one. That thought led to the true solution. The ribbons had nothing to do with rank or age: they indicated how long someone had lived in Scarlatina. Eureka! When Coral asked about his hypothesis at the dinner table that night, Kat and Tak told him he'd gotten it exactly right (and that it was tradition to let newcomers puzzle it out for themselves). Each ribbon indicated one decade spent in the community. Coral thought about the incredible number of ribbons his teachers wore and his mind was blown. Tak said they'd be happy to take him to get his own if he wanted one. That took him by surprise.

He lay in bed that night and deliberated it. Until then, he hadn't been completely sure how long he'd be staying in Scarlatina. He'd always assumed that, once his memory returned, he'd say his goodbyes and go. But the longer he stayed, the more cozily this cliffside village hugged him. This was as close to paradise as he ever could have wanted. He had a home here, a real one. Even if he did recover his past someday, what could he have possibly left behind that could ever make him want to leave?

The next day, after school, the Nacker family took him to a shop full of colors and incense. After careful consideration, Coral picked his own ribbon: simple yellow, to match the stripes on his vest. He flinched when the piercings went into his arm, but when the Decoration Man threaded the ribbon through and held the mirror up to show him, the small mouse felt an incredible surge of happiness pour through him. He belonged now. This community had accepted him, and he had accepted them.

And yes, his fur fell out. He'd gotten used to the idea by then. Though for a while it seemed like he might escape this fate. He was fully-furred for almost a week. Then one morning he looked in the mirror and saw a bit more pink than white. Two days later he was as bald as an orange. His response was, "Oh well." For all he'd gained so far, it was a worthwhile tradeoff. Curiously, he never seemed to gain his weight back either, no matter how much Kat fed him. She'd shovel treats into him by the bushel, and still he looked like a scarecrow.

One afternoon when the wind was just right, Skeeto came to Coral in especially high spirits. He had a surprise. From his closet he pulled what looked like a giant umbrella. They carried it together to the top of the cliff. Skeeto unfurled the cardinal-red diamond of fabric, shouting, "It's a hang-glider! I got it for my birthday present last year!" The kitten handwaved Coral's expression of dread, saying he'd love it once he tried it. As they dragged it over to where some other cubs were setting up theirs, Coral weighed his worries. There really wasn't anything to fear, right? At worst he could fall and die. He'd be fine afterwards. 'Except you'd also probably break Skeeto's birthday present.' He definitely didn't want to do that. He said he'd watch while Skeeto tried it first. Skeeto said that was the plan anyway. "It's always scary the first time!" Coral was glad to hear him acknowledge that.

Skeeto strapped in, checked the wind, then went darting towards the cliff edge. Coral's few remaining hairs stood on end as the kitten dropped out of sight. But then he reappeared, soaring across the village below, whooping in joy and streaking towards the sun. Coral just gawked as he watched his brother dance on nothing. Plenty of other kids were swooping around on giant kites too. Coral felt a rumbling fear in his stomach, but also a shiver of jealousy.

Unfortunately, Diver was nearby. Diver was another boy in class. A puma with just enough remaining fur on his tail to make him the envy of everyone else. "King shit of turd mountain," as Skeeto once said. He was more arrogant than aggressive, but he was the closest thing to a bully Coral had dealt with so far. Diver was flanked by a posse of admirers as he carried his own glider to the edge. "What's up, Pinkeye? Too afraid of heights to try it yourself?"

It startled Coral more than anything else, as his attention had been wholly skyward. His little jump amused the other kids. Their laughter made his cheeks burn. "I'm just waiting my turn, that's all."

"Surrrre!" Diver said. "You can watch me if you want, since I know watching's all you're gonna do today."

An insane idea struck Coral. He had no idea where it had come from, but he knew he had to act on it right now or never. "Hey, get it straight about me!" he piped up.

Diver was surprised by the sudden change in the mouse's tone.

"I'm afraid of germs, not heights," Coral said. Then he ran straight towards the cliff. He turned back just long enough for a casual smile before traipsing over the edge.

He immediately regretted it. The wind pummeled his body and popped his ears. But watching the puma's eyes bug out had been worth it. Now all he had to worry about was death. He twisted around, weightless, and realized he had another problem. He was falling straight towards the market. If he splattered into someone's stall, he'd wreck all their merchandise and they'd be royally pissed. So, in the space of a few seconds, he taught himself how to swim through air, aiming for empty ground. Just before impact he screamed, "EXCUSE ME!!!"

Blackness for a moment. Then someone was pulling him to his feet. A crowd had gathered, looking concerned. Thankfully his corpse pulled itself back to life, rather than leaving a bloody mess behind. And he hadn't hit anything! Success! Coral nodded thanks to the furson who'd helped him, then told the onlookers, "I slipped." He darted for the elevators before anyone could could start asking questions.

When he neared the top of the cliff again, he wasn't sure what the reception would be, though it should have been obvious. Skeeto barreled into him with laughter and back-pats for doing something so nuts. Other kids tossed in compliments as well. Base jumping into solid ground was the sort of thing everybody knew they could survive, but very few were bold enough to try. Even Diver, to his credit, walked up and shook Coral's hand. "Not bad." Coral smiled broadly and acknowledged his sportsmanship. Then another kid asked the puma if he was going to live up to his name and follow the mouse's example. Diver froze for an instant, then regained his composure and said that if two kids in a row fell off, the grownups would know it was on purpose and he'd get in trouble. But he'd totally do it next time, he promised, totally.

Skeeto offered the hang-glider to Coral and gave him some pointers. When the mouse took off, it was without hesitation.

Glorious. He was born for this. Coral's heart thudded in his chest, much more from exhilaration than terror. He loved how responsive the little glider was. And fast! Tak had known his son well enough to prioritize speed when he'd picked it out. Coral surfed the air currents, feeling like he was held aloft by pure will alone. He had no idea where this surge of confidence had come from, and hardly cared. All his weeks of detective work into his old life had led nowhere. Clues aplenty, but nothing solid. Coral had gained only a silhouette of his old personality. All he knew was that he had once had been messed-up, fearful, and lonely. And yet, there must have been something else within him to generate the sheer chutzpah of that cliff jump.

When he came in for a landing and actually managed to stay on his feet, Skeeto was exploding with congratulations. And a new thought came to the mouse. Maybe his confidence hadn't come from his old life at all. Maybe it had come from Coral.

Though, there was something else making him lean further and further towards letting his old self remain forgotten. It was the dreams. He hadn't told his family about them. He didn't want anyone to worry. But more nights than not, he'd wake up in the dark, petrified with fear or clenched tight sobbing. He had dreamed about some horrible slimy spider eating him alive. He'd dreamed about burning to death, then being trapped in a car as it drove over a waterfall. In his waking life he knew death was impermanent, but his dream-self didn't. His dream-self felt such crushingly-intense terror, it was like being electrocuted from the inside out. This fear was 100% uncontrollable. The only recourse was to run from it and wake up. And there were other dreams too. Vague ones that disappeared as soon as his eyes opened, leaving him with mists of people and places that made him feel other emotions just as intense as the fear. All painful. One morning he'd woken up muttering someone's name, but forgot it the instant he was aware he was doing so. Another time he'd been certain he knew what the slit in his palm was for. But that faded too. No matter how hard he tried, he could not take anything from his dreams. They were locked behind the gate of his subconscious.

And Coral grew to resent them. If the frightening, sorrowful images would not come to him fully, then he wished they'd just give up and go away. All they did was cause him suffering. Whatever his old life had been, he was sure by now it was something miserable and ugly. He didn't want it back. He wanted to just bag it up and throw it out with the trash. Or watch it burn in Kat's kiln. He wanted to just be here, now, in Scarlatina. Not the bleak, foggy outback his dreams kept dragging him to.

Eventually he built up the courage to ask his new parents for medicine to help him sleep without dreaming. They had a long talk. Finally, they agreed. A teaspoon at night helped him coast to morning on pleasant nothingness.

One day he checked the calendar and realized he'd arrived in Scarlatina one month ago. Tak and Kat took him to an anniversary dinner at a nice restaurant. It was right at the top of the cliff, overlooking the sunset. Coral and Skeeto shared a big cake and went home stuffed.

His grades at school were exemplary. He was getting along better with his classmates, and his 'newness' was wearing off. They were starting to treat him like just another kid. He was getting pretty good at swiff, too. One night he and Skeeto camped out atop the cliff along with Denny and Sail, unsupervised all night long. A girl in class, Oasis, seemed like she might have had a crush on him, and he was working up the courage to ask the little squirrel directly. At home he could hold a pottery brush as steady as Kat, and she was teaching him how to cook. On the boat, his body-spotting skills were getting nearly as good as Skeeto's. One time he'd found a backpack. Tak helped him sell its contents, and in the market he bought a sack of candy and a velcro swiff mitt. Tak and Kat bought him his very own bed. And one night, when he forgot to take his medicine, he remembered his dreams in the morning. They were perfectly normal now.

Today was Tuesday. School had just ended. Coral had aced a spelling test, banged his elbow in gym, eaten ravioli at lunch, and Oasis had passed a secret note to him during class. All in all, a decent balance. He and Skeeto wove through the market on their way home, when out of nowhere the kitten started fidgeting in excitement like he'd been dipped in itching powder. Coral asked what it was about and Skeeto simply grabbed his hand and yanked him along. "We only get to see him once a month!" the kitten yelled. "He only looks like a monster, but he’s really cool! Though pretty tough on his prices, so watch out!" Ever since finding the purse, Skeeto had been counting the days. Last time the peddler had been in town there'd been a remote-controlled spy eye copter in his cart. If it was still there, Skeeto was determined to have it. "Just think about how much that could help on the boat! And we could spy on the girls' class too!!"

Skeeto led Coral to where a monstrosity of a man was selling items from a trapezoidal cart. Both were swamped by Scarlatin citizens. They all waved items they wanted appraised for trade. Coral thought the merchant looked like a cross between a caiman, a coat rack, and a centipede. Nightmarish, but it was hard to be completely afraid of a guy in such a goofy shirt.

Skeeto squirmed his way past the crowd and started rifling through the cart for his treasure. The merchant turned to look, and was startled when he laid eyes on Coral.

"Oho, if this isn't a pleasant surprise! I didn't expect to meet you here, or ever again for that matter. You're looking quite different these days, Toby, though I recognized your smell."

The mouse froze, shattered, clenched, and stared. All things ceased to exist. A bomb had just gone off in his head at the sound of his own true name.


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