The Island Of Lote
Episode 29: The Crash Site
By Emily Kinney
By Emily Kinney
DARK CHURNING CLOUDS, evil laughter, someone screaming far off in the distance . . . Ajsha woke up with a start, a cold sweat beading on her neck. Sunshine was spilling through her window, making an abstract puddle of gold on her bed. After staring around at all the everyday, normal objects in her room, she caught her breath and sighed. Milo's head suddenly appeared in the doorway.
"Finally," she said. "It's about time, girl. This is like the longest you've ever slept. Come on, get -are you okay?"
Ajsha sucked in air and accidentally swallowed it. "Yes, Momma," she managed to say. Milo shook her head and clicked her tongue as she came into the room.
"Knew we shouldn't have stayed out so late," she muttered, half to Ajsha, half to herself. "But can you blame us? What a party! I've never danced so much in my life. Did you have fun?"
Ajsha nodded as she got out of bed, determinedly clenching her hands into fists to make them stop quivering.
"It was nice of Squelch to invite us. Now both of you are fifteen."
"Sure are," Milo said happily, withdrawing a pair of extremely clean jeans and a T-shirt from Ajsha's bureau.
Ajsha wrinkled her nose. "Jeans?" she said distastefully.
"Yes," Milo replied firmly. "We need rumble clothes for where we're going. No skirts allowed. Don't go complaining, either. Jeans are a wonderful gift and privilege. Remember that."
"Yes, Momma," Ajsha said, though she hardly sounded convinced.
"Good, now change and come get some breakfast." Milo was very impatient as she waited for Ajsha to come out and eat. She was also unbelievably excited. That day, they were going on a special outing. (Milo tenaciously wanted to call it a trip, or even an excursion, but she was outnumbered by people who couldn't stop calling it an outing, so an Outing it remained. It got on her nerves so badly that it was a marker of how much she wanted to go that she didn't call the whole thing off.) Simon had agreed to take them all to the crash site. Ever since she had first heard about the place, Milo had been very curious about what it was like, and at long last she was going to see it. Squelch was going to go with them, and, much to Milo's exasperation and dismay, she also called it an Outing.
They had celebrated Squelch's fifteenth birthday the night before. There had been much laughter, farm grown food, floating candles in clay pots, and plenty of dancing. Milo grinned as she recalled it. She had brought her radio and speaker with her so that they could have a variety of music. There had been circle dancing, crowd dancing, and even couple dancing, since several families from the neighboring farms attended and brought with them blushing, teenage farm boys. (Squelch's sisters pointedly ignored every single one of them, but Squelch of course wasn't as uppity and danced with many of them.) Salsa had spent most of her time teaching Otto Gauls to dance, though, at least in Milo's opinion, it was time wasted, since all he seemed to want to do was cast wary, shifty looks over everyone present. It wasn't that he couldn't be friendly when he wanted to; he was just strange. Milo had yet to discover what Salsa saw in him.
Ajsha finally emerged from her bedroom and sat down to her food. Milo was filling a basket with a lunch for four people. Simon entered in, dressed also in jeans and a T-shirt. Milo really had never seen him in jeans. He was usually always dressed for swimming. She liiiiiked it. Beckoning to him with a finger, she gave him a long, approving kiss.
"Best way to start the day. Yoven fidlo, little cutie," he said, kissing Ajsha on the head.
"Yoven fidlo, Father," she answered groggily, blinking at her bowl of cereal.
"Uh - uh - uh!" Milo snapped, wagging a finger. "No talking - just eating."
Simon turned back to her, smirking. "Aren't you anxious? Don't worry, we'll get there."
Milo nodded emphatically. "Yes. The sooner the better."
They set off at last, everyone donning rarely worn shoes and Milo taking her big, floppy hat. (All of the sunscreen she had packed for Australia had long since been used up.) They met up with dear Squelch in town, and together, as a group, they veered off onto one of the side roads that lead to the west. Milo and Squelch walked side by side, Simon and Ajsha walking ahead.
"So," Milo asked, "have you ever been to the crash site?"
"I don't know," Squelch replied, stepping over something despicable, left by something furry. "I might have when I was really little, but I can't remember it. It's not exactly a favorite outing destination."
Milo kept her comments to herself.
Simon, who had been there numerous times, knew a shortcut through the jungle. It took them off the worn path, through thick overgrowth and over a few streams, heading towards the far side of the island. After an hour of tramping and tripping, they emerged from the trees out onto an enormous sandy beach. What Milo saw made her heart skip a beat.
Airplanes lay crumpled and dilapidated upon the coarse white sand. Parts like wings, engines, and landing gear were strewn about in every direction. The planes had no tires and the good metal had been stripped off, making the air crafts look somewhat skeletal. The windows were gone, the seats, dividing curtains, and carpets were gone, along with the plastic from the overheads and bathrooms. There were about ten airplanes in all, or at least all that remained of airplanes that the islanders couldn't use. The sight of those gigantic dead pieces of machinery, ravaged for their parts, made Milo feel terribly small and powerless. Simon, noticing her frightened expression, put an arm around her shoulders.
"It's awful," she confided in a whisper. "It kinda scares me."
"There's nothing to be afraid of," he told her. "Come on. Let me show you around."
After depositing the picnic basket under a shady tree, they walked about, peering into the different planes, observing the angles they had hit the ground and the scorch marks left by the fires from the explosions. There was a plane dating back to the nineteentens, when luxury air travel first started. There seemed to be a plane from each era, all stripped down and rusting badly. Simon even showed Milo her plane. It made her shudder to remember that night, but everyone else wanted to hear the story of her perilous plummet into their lives. So she told it, sharing what details she could remember, and it got them all excited. Secretly, Simon was glad that nobody had woken Milo up when they vacated the plane. However, he felt it would be insensitive to voice this.
Milo was then shown the plane Ajsha had been rescued from, and even walked around inside it. As she was exploring, she saw a charred newspaper clipping on the floor. Picking it up, she read, "Terrifying outbreak in Liverpool hospital. Sixteen infants being moved to America ..."
Biting her lip, she let the clipping flutter back down to the floor. She then took to wandering around alone.
One plane didn't have its left side ripped off and she read,
Her eyebrows went up, and then her head bobbed up and down. Roaming further on, she came to another plane that still had a patch of siding left. This one said,
She shook her head and decided to rejoin the others. They all were having a great time and played by the waves for a while before eating lunch underneath the trees. It was a delicious picnic (chiefly sandwiches, which are the reigning king of picnic cuisine) and afterwards Milo contentedly stared up at the sky as Squelch and Ajsha ran off to play by the water. Simon lay down next to her, shoulder to shoulder, and held her hand. Milo smiled blithely, soaking up the peace and love, savoring what justly could be deemed a perfect moment, but stopped abruptly when she spotted something in the sky. At that very second, it was nothing more than a speck. But on an island, where the sky is always an endless void of blue, untarnished by anything except the occasional cloud, specks are anything but normal. Within a few seconds, it became more than a speck; it was now a speck with details. Milo blinked once to make sure, but was positive.
"Simon!!" Milo screamed at the top of her lungs, a horrifying coldness creeping over her.
"I am right here," he said, rubbing his ear. "There's no need to -"
"Shut up and look up!"
"What? Where?" he asked, peering at the green foliage above them.
"Up there!" she hissed, pointing at the sky, where the detailed speck was enlarging. "Is that -?"
"An airplane!" he shouted, sitting up. "No! I mean, yes it is, but -"
"Ajsha!" Milo cried, also getting up and gesturing wildly.
"Squelch! Come here!"
"What's wrong?" they said, sounding worried and rushing over, their pant legs wet from the tide.
"It's an airplane! Up in the sky!"
Their eyes expanded with horror and they threw their heads back. Sure enough, the speck had become a full-fledged aircraft, and it was flying close.
"Oh, good gracious!" Squelch cried, hand sailing to her forehead.
"I don't understand," Ajsha said, trying to succeed as the composed one and failing. "It seems too small to be an airplane."
"Not all airplanes are that size," Milo said, gesturing to the enormous crashed ones. "There are some called private planes that are much tinier. I think that's what that one is."
"It's headed right for the island!" announced Simon, definite anxiety in his voice.
And since the wretched thing was, undeniably, angling straight towards the island, they took a minute to exchange looks of terror and indecision with each other before clumsily throwing on their shoes, fetching the basket, and heading back to town at a run.
The plane was descending languidly, searching for a place to make a landing, having absolutely no intention of passing over this little gem of green in the turquoise ocean. Simon led them through every shortcut he knew, but they couldn't possibly keep up with the speed of the plane. But they still pushed on, crashing and tumbling through the undergrowth as if they were running for their lives. They had to stop briefly once or twice when Ajsha looked like she might collapse, and each time the wait was torturous.
When they finally arrived in town, throats raw and chests aching, people were wandering in droves down to the beach where the fisherboys fished. Apparently, they weren't the only ones who had noticed the plane's appearance. Milo's heart filled with fear as she watched the grave crowds walk towards the only possible runway on the island, besides the Crash Site, which was so littered with airplanes that there was no room. Her stomach lurched as she thought of the threat that had just landed. Private planes were expensive. Only someone quite rich could afford one. And rich people always seem to be concocting silly ideas about how to get even richer. The four of them followed the throng of villagers, all of them murmuring distraughtly to each other. Milo exchanged a glance with Simon. He looked worried. Wordlessly, he reached out and grasped her hand.
"What's going to happen?" she whispered.
"I don't know," he admitted. "This has only happened once before. Long ago, a ship anchored here and the captain threatened to expose us to the world. So they destroyed his ship, and he and his crew never left. It's up to the Mayor what happens today. Maybe if whoever it is promises to keep us a secret, they can leave. If not . . . well, like I said, that's up to the island council."
Milo nodded grimly, not believing that something that she had once wished so hard for now made her stomach churn with dread. As the plane came into view through the trees, Milo thought she heard a familiar voice. She shook her head, trying to clear her brain. It was trying to play tricks on her. There was a good sized crowd when they got there. They couldn't see past the multitude of bodies, the people from the plane hidden from view, but as they worked their way to the front, Milo heard,
"Oh, my! They're speaking nonsense!"
Milo's eyes, already wide from panic, grew even bigger and she almost came to a halt.
"No!" she thought, her intestines no longer twisting but leaping painfully. "Impossible!"
"Is it?" Bob the Conscience said dismally. "Is it really? When it comes to you, Milo dear, impossible doesn't enter the equation." Milo had to admit he was right, but still mulishly forced herself not to believe it as she wormed her way through the mob. However, once she got to the front, all resolve to be stubborn vaporized, and her jaw fell off and her heart quit. There, standing in a lavender power suit and hat, was her mother. And standing beside her in pressed dress pants and pilot's jacket and hat was her father. The Hestler parents were now on the island.
All Milo could do was stare, unbelieving, thinking she was dreaming. Positive she was going insane. Certain her lack of sunscreen was causing her to hallucinate. How on Earth? It wasn't possible! It just wasn't possible! Or was it?
Slowly, reluctantly, she coughed, "M-Mom? Dad?"
They didn't hear her. The two parents were unhurriedly gazing at all the faces of the islanders with an expression of bewildered fascination, until their eyes roved over Milo's face. They were about to continue on to the person next to her, but they suddenly stiffened, recognition dawning on their faces and their lips slowly drooping down to make little 0s. They turned pale as wax and for minute could only stare, not even daring to blink. Milo, in turn, stared back. They regarded each other with a mixture of shock and disbelief, neither the parents nor the child able to fully grasp what was going on.
"Is it?" they finally choked to each other, not taking their eyes off of Milo. "No. No. It can't be. She's -! Milo?" they called out warily, taking a step forward and then stepping back. "Is that you? Is it actually you?"
The girl tried to collect herself, taking deep breathes and letting them out in a jittery sort of way. Simon was glancing from the Hestlers to her, monstrously confused and growing uneasy.
"It's me," Milo managed to say at last, her eyes stinging. "But is it you?"
"Oh, my!" her mother shrieked, hopping up and down in her high heels, not answering her. "It is Milo! It is! It really is! You're alive?"
"Yes!" Milo cried, rolling her eyes and thinking this should have been obvious. She crossed the strip of sand dividing them from the villagers, since they evidently weren't going to, Simon watching her go with a heavily lined brow. Ajsha whispered something to him in Galo, and he shushed her.
Milo came to a stop about a foot from where her parents were standing, gripping each other's arms. For a silent minute, they simply stood near each other, feeling tears welling up inside them. Milo's tears were half from happiness and half that her parents were there and that was a fact worth crying over. In a sudden instant, all three simultaneously broke into a sobbing, snuffling, wet cascade of tears.
The poor, yet finely dressed, parents hugged their long-lost daughter and went on crying, their tears running down and mingling with her hair. Milo wept as well, her face wedged between their two necks. She couldn't believe they were there. She felt so happy. That was happiness she was feeling, right? Or was it nervousness? She was nervous? Why?
"They're your parents," Bob the Conscience sighed.
Her mother leaned away from Milo and held her face in her hands. "Milo," she said, sniffing, her mascara making tiny black rivers down her cheeks. "I really can't - When we heard about the plane . . . we were devastated. Just . . ." She swallowed hard. "And everybody got out except you. Isn't that funny?"
"Fate," Milo muttered, not daring to look behind her, feeling the thousands of eyes on her back.
"Oh, hon," her father said, wiping his eyes and clasping her shoulders. "Let me look at you. Well! Say, you look slightly healthier than the last time I saw you. But, changing the subject to a more important question, what are you doing here?"
"What am I doing here?" Milo repeated incredulously, immediately feeling that she had the perfect right to be there and shouldn't be interrogated about it. "What are you doing here? And where did that thing come from?" she demanded, thrusting a thumb at the miniature plane, a series of steps leading down from the open door. "Last time we were together, we didn't have enough money to send me to a private school, much less buy something like that!"
"Well," her father said proudly. "It's like this, hon. I got a very large promotion after you left. My good, ol' boss made me vice president. Second in command. Lots of money in that! Bought this rig here and we now live up in the penthouse at 711 Shady Ally."
"You still live there?" Milo said, appalled and taking several steps backwards.
"Absolutely," her mother said primly, opening her purse to find a compact mirror. "It's such a nice place. We were island hopping, but we didn't know that natives live here."
"Mom," Milo groaned, all joyful feelings fading. "They're not natives. They're people."
"Who said they weren't?" she inquired, dabbing at her face. "Natives are people. Of course, when we landed, we didn't expect them to be here. Wait. Um, who's he?"
Milo hesitantly turned around to see Simon standing directly behind her. He had grown too nervous and thought he should go over. After all, she had met his parents. Milo bit back a moan, certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that things were only going to get worse from here.
"HELLO!" Milo's mother shouted at Simon, enunciating heavily. "HOW ARE YOU?"
Simon gave her a skeptical look. "I'm all right," he said warily. "How are you?"
Both Milo's parents jumped back in surprise. It might have been comical, only it came off more as embarrassing. Milo wondered bleakly who in their right mind thought it would be good for her parents to become wealthy.
"He can speak English?" her father said, ogling Simon like he was the missing link.
"A few can," Milo informed them, silently thinking that he might be a little deaf now.
"Well!" her father exclaimed, in a tone that implied he had money so he could utter such things. Never in her life had Milo wanted to smack her father more. "How about that! Who is he, hon?"
"Well," she said, putting a hand on Simon's arm. "This is Simon Swallow. He is my -"
She stopped short, the words catching in her throat. What in the world was she saying? How could she tell them that she was married? Without warning, all of the aspects of her life on the island seemed to become unsure and unstable, like she didn't know if they were good or not. As if she had been caught doing something bad. She gazed up at Simon, her eyes pleading. His face was expressionless, but his eyes were asking her questions. Questions of loyalty.
"Go on. Tell them," he said to her. "Who am I, Milo?"
Milo deflated somewhat, knowing he was right and feeling ashamed that her parents being there should change that. However, she was right too, because she knew it would. She sighed, raised her eyes to Heaven so that she wouldn't have to look at either of them, and braced herself.
"He's my husband."
Her parents stared at her. The sounds of the ocean lapping at the shore were audible and a bird cawed, but other than that it was unbroken silence. Even the villagers were waiting with bated breath, and they barely knew what was going on.
"What?" her mother finally said.
"I'm her husband," Simon said, standing beside Milo, feeling he should take charge of some sort.
"That's not possible," her father said dismissively. "She's too young to get married."
"Well," Milo said, her heart pounding, knowing that the truth must be tackled before they could move on to other, more pleasant things. "That doesn't really matter here, Dad."
"Do you mean to say that you're already married?" her mother shouted, her calmness gone as if it was a just a mask that was torn off. Milo jumped at the unexpected outburst, Simon putting an arm protectively about her shoulders. The woman glowered at her.
"Now, Sherrill-Jean," her father said sternly, touching her wrist. "I'm sure Milo's kidding."
Sagging, Milo gulped. He had used her name. He was mad at her.
"Actually, Dad, I am. I mean I'm not!" she corrected quickly. "I've been married since July."
"What?!" he roared, also losing all composure. It was actually rather startling. Together, bristling in their swanky attire, the Hestlers seethed at their daughter, who cowered beneath Simon's arm.
"July?" her father fumed. "Do you mean to say that you agreed to get married to a boy you barely knew?"
"Well, no," she said slowly, her blood pounding in her ears. "Not exactly. 'Agree' really isn't the word of choice here. It's actually kind of a funny story. Well, it's funny now . . . not so much back then. I think I'll start it with someone reading to you from the law book. Yes, that might be good. Um, AJSHA! Go get it!"
As Ajsha hastened to obey, Milo's mother asked, "Who is Ajsha?"
"That's also funny," Milo said, her head starting to throb. "She's my . . . daughter."
"WHAT?!!" they both cried at the same time, exceptionally alarmed.
"Adopted!" Milo added hurriedly. "Adopted daughter! She's six! See, it's all part of the marriage deal - I'll just explain after you hear the laws."
Her parent's shoulders slumped with relief, and they went to stand by the private plane's front tire to await their fabled granddaughter's return. Those in the surrounding mob who could comprehend English were currently bringing the rest up to speed on what was happening. Shocked mutterings permeated the vicinity, though everyone had enough sense not to bother Milo or Simon right then, both of them looking incredibly preoccupied. Soon the tightly packed crowds began to break up, many people, mostly those who could stand only so much excitement for one day, headed back towards town. The more iron-nerved stuck around, leaning against trees and milling in circles, gossiping and wondering when the Mayor would arrive.
As they waited for Ajsha, Simon asked Milo in a whisper, "Why are you afraid of your parents? It's like you're scared of what they'll do."
"Oh, do be quiet, Simon," she whispered back. "You don't know these two. I'm telling you, you don't. Certain things are difficult to tell them, all right? Who knows whose head they'll rip off when they hear the laws. Probably mine . . . or yours."
Simon didn't know how to respond. He wanted to argue, to tell her that she was safe and that she shouldn't worry. However, since Milo looked like she was about to be poisoned, and he figured mere words wouldn't console her. He would have to prove it. Reaching out, he slipped a hand into hers and gave it squeeze. Instead of squeezing back, Milo jumped and checked to see if her parents were watching. Simon suppressed a groan.
Presently, Ajsha came back with Mrs. Lanslo and the massive law book. Nervously, the woman stood between the plane and the islanders and read the marriage laws to the parents. When Mrs. Lanslo finished, they both were outraged in their own way. Milo's father was shaking with fury, and her mother looked liable to faint. It isn't easy for parents to learn that their daughter is ensnared within such unheard of, fiendish laws, even if they are a slightly lower category of parent. Once they had paced a little and muttered angrily a little, to themselves and each other, Milo's parents glared at all the remaining island people.
"Do you mean to say that you enforced these laws on my baby girl?!" her father yelled at them.
By now there were several professional interpreters among the denizens. They stood at the front and explained what was happening. Everyone looked quite insulted.
"Yes," Milo said rashly, hoping this would clear everything up and they could move on.
No such luck. Milo's mother grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. "Tell me exactly what happened," she commanded. "Tell me!" she snapped when Milo was about to protest.
"Um . . . Wouldn't you want to come inside where we can sit?" Milo suggested, already quite worn out and not exactly eager to have half the town hear her version of the wedding.
"Actually, Sherrill-Jean," her father interjected, sounding interested. "It would be nice if -"
"No! Tell me here! Now!"
Milo sighed and, stomach grinding to mush, told her parents what had occurred following her departure to Australia. From meeting Simon, to the Mayor holding a dagger to her throat when she refused to wear the engagement ring, and step by step through the wedding. As he heard her describing the despair she had felt on that day, Simon began to feel rather bad. Her parents didn't bother with sympathy and immediately grew furious. When Milo came to the end of her story, her father broke. Up. Down. Everywhere.
"This is an outrage!" he shouted at random. "You filthy barbarians! All of you! My poor daughter is lost, stranded, and you put her through hell! The audacity! But, there may be some wiggle room." He said this last part quietly, and to himself.
"Milo," he said, turning to her, "you are underage, too young to marry. Therefore, in order for you to actually be married, your mother or I would have to sign a paper, giving you permission."
Milo felt her heart drop down to somewhere near her ankles. "So," she said under her breath, her voice full of disappointment and dread, "I'm not really married?"
"Not legally," he confirmed unfeelingly. "You weren't born here, so technically the laws don't apply to you. The only way you could be is if we signed the marriage certificate."
Stiffly, Milo looked back at all those faces. They too were just finding all this out. All looked stunned and worried. But the face that looked the worst was Simon's. He had paled and looked like his entire world had just been ripped away from him. Her heart aching, Milo wanted to comfort him, but dared not. Ajsha looked devastated. Milo felt awful too, and utterly helpless.
"Well!" her mother said cheerfully, completely unaware of the terrible sorrow in her daughter's soul. "That's wonderful! We can take Milo home and forget this ever happened!"
Milo looked up in alarm. "Leave?" she whispered hoarsely.
Leave the island? Leave her only friends? Leave Chaos? Leave Market Day and Washing Day? Leave Ajsha?! Leave Simon?!! Forget?
"Of course," her mother declared sensibly. "You can't possibly want to stay here."
Milo remembered a time when she would have agreed with this. But now? How could she go? Did she want to leave? Did she?
"No," Simon said, panting and raking his fingers through his hair. He couldn't believe what was happening. How could they do this to him? How could they take away the one he loved? They couldn't. They wouldn't!
"No! You can't!" he insisted with a bit of a tremor, stepping forward to be next to Milo.
"Shut up, you!" Milo's father shouted savagely, spitting some. "We'll take our daughter where we please. You have no say in it!"
Rage boiled up in Simon. "I'm her husband!" he yelled.
"No you're not!" her mother screeched. "You just heard my husband! You and Milo are not married! So just stay out of this!"
As Simon winced and shook with repressed wrath, Ajsha timidly approached Milo. "They're not really taking you away?" she whispered, voice warbling. "Are they, Momma?"
"Quiet, kid!" Milo's mother shot defensively. "She is not your mom!"
Admittedly, this might have been overly harsh, but, in all honesty, no mother is ever thrilled to hear her fifteen year old daughter be called "Momma". Tears welled up in Ajsha's eyes as she ran to Simon, who picked her up.
"Don't talk to her like that!" he growled, clutching her to his chest.
"Mr. and Mrs. Hestler," Squelch said, walking up bravely before Milo's mother or father could retaliate. "Please don't take Milo away. I'm her best friend, Squelch Welch."
Milo's parents stared at her, and it was impossible to tell whether they were more surprised at her name or that Milo had a friend.
"What kind of idiot names their child 'Squelch'?" her father asked his wife meanly. Apparently, it was the former.
Milo groaned hopelessly, and Squelch fell back, stunned. Her throat started to tighten and her eyes burned. They had hit her where it hurt. She went over to Simon, who patted her back.
"Don't listen to them," he told her in Galo.
"I knew this would happen," Ajsha sobbed in Galo, her tears dampening Simon's T-shirt. "I knew that someday someone would find her and take her away from us!"
"Shh," Simon said soothingly. "It'll be okay. Milo loves us. Or at least, I hope she loves us enough." He glanced at Milo, who looked like she wanted nothing more than to melt away.
"Please," Soldier said, singling himself out from the crowd, his brow lined with purpose. "Milo means so much to us. She really changed this place. She's special."
"Keep your words off us," Milo's father barked, brushing off his suit for emphasis. "Barbarians!"
"Dad!" Milo yelped, putting her hands up as if she could halt the words in midair. "Stop that!"
"Milo!" her mother said strictly, in a familiar tone. "Don't talk to your father that way."
Suddenly back in every kitchen the Hestlers had ever occupied, Milo snorted and crossed her arms. "I see you two haven't changed," she muttered, old emotions arising.
Her father and mother gave each other a long look, and then faced her again. Their expressions were somber, their hands clasped in front of them. Milo froze, wondering what was coming.
"Milo," her mother began sincerely, her voice catching. She shook her head. "Don't. Please. You see, we have. We've changed. When you disappeared, we were horrified and woe-stricken."
"We started to look over our lives as parents," her father said mournfully. "We realize that we haven't - well . . . been the best." Milo blinked. She thought she'd never hear them say that.
"We decided to change," her father went on. "We felt awful that we weren't able to be good parents to you while you were alive. We turned around, hon. We've changed. Really we have. Now we want to take you away from here. That's what good parents would do. Take their child away from the place where their child suffers. You can't possibly be happy here."
"She is!" barked someone from within the crowd.
There were gasps and murmurs alike as the multitude of bodies parted and Aunt Rosario Em-I marched smartly up to the scene. Even Milo was baffled to see her so far from her home.
She halted before the Hestlers and planted her hands on her hips. "Well," she said, staring at them critically. "Hello, Earnest. Sherrill-Jean. Don't you remember me? Surely you recognize your own sister, Earnest."
Milo's father stood in shock for a moment, before spluttering back to life.
"Rosario?" he sputtered, staring so hard it was as if he were trying to see through her.
"It can't be," Milo's mother said, paling so that the rouge on her cheeks stood out.
Aunt Rosario nodded. "It is," she said scornfully. "I was here long before Milo. I was a flight attendant when we crashed. I married the mayor of this island. I burned down your first house. I am nearly always sick and alone, but I'm happy and content here, so don't even try to talk me into anything!"
"What was that about a house?"
"Nothing. Don't try to change the subject. The point is, just as I am happy here and you can't make me leave, Milo's happy here and you can't make her leave."
"Nonsense," Milo's father said, regaining a certain sense of pomp, still not quite convinced that he was speaking to his sister. He scratched at his hairline, trying to reorient himself. "How do I know you're even my sister? Here, only my sister knows what my middle name is."
Aunt Rosario kept her hands on her hips and smirked. "Jabez," she said.
Milo's father paled too. Then he smiled. "Rosario!" he cried happily, opening his arms. "I said don't change the subject," she remonstrated sharply. "The point is, you're inflicting a lot of pain on the good people of this island by saying you'll take Milo away."
Milo's mother's lips curled around her teeth, a quirk Milo had never seen her do before. "They'll just have to find a way to live without her. Rosario. The barbarians."
"They're not barbarians, Mom!" Milo hissed, peering furtively at the crowd, who were getting quite disgruntled. "You've got to stop saying that. They're people. People just like you and me."
"Nonsense!" her father said again, the island heat obviously not helping his already low sense of decorum. He dabbed at the corner of his mouth with a sleeve. "People don't hold daggers to another's throat to force them to say vows. You can't possibly like living among them, Milo."
"She does!" Aunt Rosario snapped, with a glare that dared her brother to snap back. He didn't.
"Please," Mrs. Lanslo chimed in. "She does. She really is happy. She does want to stay here."
"Shut up," Milo's father said, aiming his venom at her, and for good measure added, "Old hag!"
"You shut up!" Soldier spat, striding forward, on the brink of cracking his knuckles.
"Milo," her mother said to her, twisting her away from all this and making her stare into her eyes. "You aren't okay here, are you? You don't want to stay here, do you? Now tell the truth."
Milo looked mutely at her parents and then back at her new people who had no specific name, but were just people. She glanced from her mother to Ajsha. From her father to Simon. They all waited silently. She, gulped, not knowing what to say. All solid ground had been blown away.
"W-well," she began nervously. All eyes were fastened onto her. She felt like they were crushing her. "I don't know. I mean, I guess so. I mean ... I - I - I -"
She searched around for comfort, but couldn't find any. "I suppose so," she said, her not even sure what she was referring to. "But . . . Oh, stop! I don't know what to know. What to think."
"How can you say that?" her father demanded.
"Yes, how?" Aunt Rosario remarked angrily.
Tears pricked the back of Milo's eyeballs. Did she want to stay? Did she want to leave? If she left, where would she go? Back to 711 Shady Ally, spelled without the e? She quaked.
"She wants to stay," Squelch piped up courageously, noticing Milo's cringing. "We're all just scaring her. This is her home now."
"Hush up!" Milo's mother snapped. "Only Milo can say what's what. Milo, listen. Hear this: You can stay. That's right; I said we've changed. We won't force you to do anything. We'll let you stay here, but only if you say that's what you want and why. But if you say you'll go, we'll whisk you away faster than you can blink. Only you can tell us." She leaned closer, plucked eyebrows in a V. "I hope you pick right. I hope you pick us. America. Society. Electricity."
"That's right, hon," her father interjected. "In the penthouse you'll have two double ovens, a grill, and a deep fat fryer. Four refrigerators. You can be what you always wanted. A caterer."
"What?" Milo said, cocking her head to see past her mother's death glare. "You mean cook?"
"Yeah, that. Whatever. Just make the right choice and come home with us. To your real home," he articulated severely. "Not this foolishness. Come home with us, your parents. The people who actually love you. We love you so much, hon. Right, Sherrill-Jean?"
"I guess so. I mean -! Of course we do!" she amended hastily. "You're meant to be with us, Milo. Not these horrific jerks. You'll be happy once you're with us."
"Who says that she isn't happy now?" growled Soldier.
"She will," her father replied calmly, slightly cowed by Soldier's girth. "Once she comes to her senses and sees that leaving is the best thing. She's wants to be with those who love her."
"Who says that we don't?" Squelch cried, two fat tears rolling unwelcomingly down her face.
Milo's mother and father looked at each other and exploded with laughter.
"How could you!" they laughed with a lack of inhibition brought on by the oppressive heat and recently acquired money. "She's stubborn, skinny, and a nutcase! How could anyone but parents love that?"
Stunned by her parents' outburst, Milo felt her own prickling tears break free and slide down. Glancing behind her, she saw that nearly everyone was looking in every direction but at her. She couldn't tell if it was out of tact, or shame from partly agreeing. The exception was Simon. He was giving her a hard, determined look. A Fight Back look. She nodded, eyes narrowing.
"I'm more than that!" she yelled at her parents over their chortling. "I'm way more! More than you'll ever know! You don't know crap about me! Therefore, that's what you think of me! Well, Milo Swallow is more than that!"
The Hestlers had ceased their merriment and were now glaring lividly at her. Her father brought his face close to hers to speak. He did not have milky breath.
"Look at yourself," he hissed. "You've forgotten who you are. The one thing I asked of you, Milo, you forgot. I asked you not to forget that you're a Hestler, and you did."
Milo felt herself flush with an undeserved shame. It just came naturally to think of herself as a Swallow. She did forget. She had willingly forgotten. How could she? She began to feel bad. How could her feelings be so mixed up? Why was she feeling for both?
"Ain't my fault," Bob the Conscience told her.
Milo's father straightened up, smoothing down his jacket in what he might have thought was a dignified manner.
"We'll give you the rest of today and . . . tomorrow to decide. We'll even let you spend it with them. Then you'll come to us and we'll hear what you've decided. Remember, Milo, we have changed."
"Yes," her mother agreed. "We'll stay on the plane. It has a bed and bath," she said pointedly.
Milo stood numb for a moment, before her head inclined minutely in a nod. Rigidly, she turned around and faced the mob of lookers and listeners. As she slunk away from her parents, she didn't bother to say goodbye to them, nor did they offer one. As the island people slowly started to disperse, Squelch and Simon went up to Milo. Simon was still holding Ajsha.
"Well," Squelch said in a forced cheerful tone. "Crazy day, huh? You're not leaving, are you?"
Milo shrugged helplessly. "I don't know," she mumbled reluctantly.
"No!" Ajsha cried, fresh showers falling from her eyes. "You can't leave, Momma! I'll miss you too much! I can't live without you! I love you, Momma. Don't leave."
Milo winced. She couldn't look at Ajsha; she hated seeing a child in hysterics, especially one that was rarely in hysterics. It must be bad if Ajsha couldn't maintain composure.
"But . . . think!" Squelch said insistently. "You said so yourself, you've never had any friends except here. You were miserable where you used to live. Do you really think that going back there is the answer?"
Milo couldn't respond, not that she wanted to, for Mrs. Lanslo appeared suddenly with Soldier.
"You're really not going away, are you, dear?" she inquired unhappily. "I know you didn't like it here at first, but what about now, dear? Don't you like it here now?"
"Of course she does," Soldier replied for her. "And she loves her husband and kid and friends. Heh! That's right, huh, Milo?"
Milo shrugged again, not denying, not confirming. She was having trouble swallowing. Mrs. Lanslo bit her nails, and Soldier frowned dangerously.
"Well," he said curtly, "I hope you think it out thoroughly. We'd miss you, girl. Life is more interesting with you here, Milo. Don't forget all the stuff we do for each other."
"No," Milo whispered. "I won't. I'd never forget any of you. You've all been so good to me. But, this I really need to figure out for myself. By myself. I'm sorry."
She turned away from them and proceeded to walk towards her house. Squelch shared some words of love and comfort with her before having to go home. Several other people came up to her and tried to persuade her to stay. Even Randolf Fittler and his unruly gang, including Caleb Scumm, approached her to apologize for any past happenings. Even they wanted her to stay, though they didn't say why. Probably for Simon's sake. Simon quietly interpreted, since Ajsha was still collecting herself. Milo merely shrugged each time, wishing they would leave her alone.
Ajsha finally got people to keep their distance, but then even she tried to talk Milo into not going. Simon hushed her as they arrived at the house. Carefully, Milo walked the entire stone pathway and looked her colorful house over. She read the words by the door, then the ones above it. Her gaze lingered painfully on those. She sighed miserably.
"Houses are built of brick and stone, but homes are made of love alone."
She then entered and walked into the sitting room, where she ran her hands over the makeshift furniture and patted the granite table. She then wandered into the kitchen, where she did the same thing. She gently stroked the painted chairs and table and ran her fingertips along the counter tops. She opened cupboards and drawers, only to close them again. She opened the cellar door and fingered her mussed backpack. It was strange. It was as if she had never seen any of it before and yet was trying so hard to savor it. Exhaling heavily, she roamed up the hallway.
She went into her bedroom and limply sat down on the bed. Chaos appeared from nowhere and jumped up, Milo picking her up. Milo held the feline to her face and sniffed her. She smelled like the outside. Salty and fresh and sweet. Milo sniffled, thinking about how she loved that smell. Ajsha and Simon quietly peeked into the room. Ajsha gathered her courage and entered.
"Momma?" she said, failing to keep her voice steady. "You won't go, will you?"
Milo's only response was to mutter something about her needing to stop crying or else she'd get sick. Simon ushered Ajsha back out into the hall. Milo collapsed onto the bed and remained there for the rest of the day. Many locals visited, wanting to talk to her, but Simon always shooed them away. Most didn't even have a connection to her, but right then she was the most exciting thing on the island. Truthfully, she was going down in their history for what was happening. The great Hestler stand-off would be studied years from now in the history class of every grade level.
However, it was far from over yet. Curled up on the sheets, Milo held her head. The island was pulling her one way, her parents were yanking her another, and it was making her head spin. Simon remained the only one who didn't try to influence her in any way. That night, Milo lay wide awake. Simon wasn't sleeping, either, but he didn't try to talk to her. Milo felt rather distant from him, though he lay close. Eventually, her eyes grew heavy with sleep and she sighed.
"What should I do?" she murmured, reaching out to place a wrist on his shoulder.
"It's your choice," Simon said simply, scalding his tongue. "Do whatever you want."
Milo knew she should, but what if the choice she wanted wasn't the right one? What was she going to do? She fell into a fitful sleep festooned with nightmares. In the nightmares, she saw all the people on the island she cared about standing in a group and staring at her. Their faces were expressionless, but it scared her. She woke up numerous times and only by some miracle was able to fall back to sleep.
In the morning she quietly made the bed and made breakfast for the family that wasn't really hers. She uttered not a word and ate nothing. When she was done with the dishes, she drifted back to her bedroom. Ajsha, too flustered to remain pent up all day, went out to seek reassurance from friends, but Simon stayed. When he finally looked into their bedroom, he saw Milo sitting cross-legged on the bed and staring out the window, Chaos loyally coiled on her lap.
"You all right?" he asked quietly after knocking softly on the doorframe.
She shook her head, not looking at him. Sighing, he sat down beside her. He laid his head morosely on her shoulder, and Milo patted his hand comfortingly.
"Would you miss me?" she asked in a whisper, a whisper for only the two of them.
He was silent for a moment, considering his reply. "I don't want to say," he murmured. "I don't want you to stay for me. That's not fair. I forced you to be with me once, Milo; I won't do it again. This is your decision alone. I'm not going to pressure you."
"I know," said Milo, her throat tight with emotion. "And I'm grateful, but I need to know whether you would be happy or not if I left. I've got to know if you'd miss me. Please say you would."
Simon really didn't want to hurt his wife any, but she had asked.
"Of course I would," he choked out. "I'd miss you soooo much. I love you so much, Milo. It would wreck me if you left. But, whatever your decision is, I will support it."
"You will?" Milo said, sniffing. "Why?"
Simon sat up and turned her face so she would look at him. "Because I want you to be happy. If you're happy, then I'm happy. Because I love you, and that's all that matters."
He kissed her cheek and stood up to leave. At the doorway, he turned back to her.
"Don't worry about what's right or wrong," he said earnestly. "Just choose what you want. Only what you want."
With that, he left, disappearing into the house that had been Milo's reality only yesterday, but now loomed around her strange and surreal. Seeing her parents had partially drawn Milo from the person she had become into the person she had been, and the two were currently colliding with each other.
"I know what I want," Milo told Chaos, stroking her head, "but there was a time when I didn't want it. We're not married . . . I could leave. But should I? I'm only fifteen. What's right? Being with parents or with your family? What should I do? Dang, why am I so confused?"
Have you ever heard the expression, "When in doubt, listen to your heart"?
Well, at that very moment, Milo thought of it. Arising from the bed, she walked all the way to the church to pray, as it is a very good thing to do when consumed by doubt. People paused to stare at her as she did so, thrill-seekers and such. When she finally came home, she decided to take the ageless, timeless, and priceless advice and actually follow her heart. But where did it lead? Well, the good thing about hearts is that they are usually quite blunt and straightforward. And when she took the time to listen to it, Milo had to agree with her heart.