Flashback: The Toriet brothers switch eyes.

Zero Sum: A Stain on the Horizon at Dusk

Eoran Toriet spread himself thin upon the platform of the balcony that hung over the busy avenue, stomach down, sweat beginning to bead upon his brow. Mid-year found the seasonal heat especially intense as various fronts from distant land masses colluded to make the passing days as uncomfortable as possible.

It was, of course, the Ossa that were made to feel the worst of all the wright classes in Port Haven, a conspiracy whose foundation was equal parts economics and upbringing. Due to the high rate of poverty among their population, many of them lacked the means to afford what was considered a luxury: artificially cooled air. The air conditioners they were able to purchase were the type that exacerbated the situation—the greatest downside to the cycle of creating coolness was that the leftover heat was spat back out into the street hotter than it had originally been taken in. On the other hand, pride made the Ossan people obstinate. Rather than seeking refuge the bloodwrights took to their stoops, balconies, and roofs where they would lounge with feline disinterest. From coal-dark pavement rose drunken striations of heat that threatened to shape a mirage. Eoran watched this natural phenomena with an unfettered infatuation; he had always heard tales of hapless wayfarers receiving prophetic visions from breaks in the aether and couldn’t help but wonder if the material world was about to impart upon him some great secret.

In a nutshell, this was Eoran’s problem. Despite his gregariousness, the fourteen year old boy had little interest for anything that existed outside of the fantastical perspective of his mind's eye. He spent too much on the affluence of youth, and had nothing to show for it aside from his clear conscience and the grey hairs that frivolity gave his immigrant parents.

The weight of adulthood had not yet crushed him, but that did not mean that it was afraid to threaten as much. Inside, through an open door and past a smattering of furniture, a schoolbook sat open on a low table, pages dutifully attended to by unseen appendages belonging to a quickly passing breeze. It was a constant source of aggravation for his mother that her youngest son was happy to let the wind be more well-read than him.

The balcony was adorned in a mess of laundry that the Toriet matriarch had recently hung, making bespoke drapes from the expert layering of loud and neurotic patterns. A hand stretched up to pull a lace curtain from the pins that held it, and the boy quickly arranged it over himself as though it were ghillie suit expertly tatted by a nana’s needle. From between a pair of sheets blotted with the bright sigils of the Ossa's homeland, a pair of black eyes spied on the crowded street below, where a pair of older men were debating if the merits of house slippers warranted the recent fluctuation in their price. He tilted his head in half-committed consideration, but soon saw a pretty classmate across the way and waved. She waved back.

The echo of the apartment door slamming broke through the groggy haze of the white noise humidity that vaguely qualified as  air. Loose hinges always swung that door in anger, always abused the frame it lived in.

“Oi, Eo!”

Kaden Toriet, eldest son of that old family, dropped a stack of mail on an already cluttered countertop, bookbag carelessly dropped on the tile. A boy of nineteen, awkward and tall, bookish but with a brusque sort of charm nurtured by the boisterous nature of his homeland, Kaden went searching for his brother on the balcony. “Eo, it’s here.” Dark hair that their mother swore up and down was too long whipped in the concrete breeze as Kaden, proud and nervous and nauseous, held up a letter with the insignia of the Bourbaki Institute emblazoned across the front.

Found, the spy scrambled from his fort, leaving a lump of linen in his absence. His clothes were slathered in dust; gangly knees scuffed and midnight hair awry.

"Finally!" Eoran chimed betwixt the shaking of his shirt and the patting of his shorts. "Are you going to open it? Or wait? Do you think you got in? What if you didn't? Kaden. How sick do you feel right now?" The inquisitive onslaught was given nary a breath in its delivery. Eoran ducked behind his brother to see if he could decipher anything from the letter against the backdrop of the afternoon.

"Huh, even the paper is intimidating." It was true—the paper was very nice.

“No more questions. I will fuckin’ puke on you.” If Kaden had felt queasy before, the endless string of youthful interrogation was sure to empty his body of its contents. “Mom wanted me to wait to open it with her—I don’t think I can wait. What if it says no?”

It would break his mother’s heart. This was the ticket out of the slums that the Toriet family had worked so hard for—his mother and father who worked long hours, multiple jobs so he could go to school, study hard. How many nights had he gone sleepless? How long had he attended night schools and exam preparations, paid for with the money he earned in the Llamela with his blood calling?

Kadenja had always been the  only Ossan in every classroom and library and academic opportunity that Amstedian kids took for granted. He was brilliant—but in the eyes of the majority, he was a sewer rat prodigy amongst average humans. A quaint anomaly, a novel concept, but essentially nothing groundbreaking. Nothing to really take notice of.

Someday, Kaden would make them take notice.

“What if it was all for nothing, Eoran?” Kaden’s hands shook as he took the envelope back from his sibling’s torrential energy.

"I'm just kidding, Kaden. Come on, stop. It won’t be. Let's take it to the kettle—we can pry it open, take a peek inside. If it's good news, we'll seal it back up and let mom have her victory. If it's not, then your secret is safe with me. It never came, and we'll disappear in the dark. Become drifters and never have to deal with the shame of you letting us all down." Eoran did not know how Kaden felt having him as a brother, but he assumed it was probably pretty miserable. Yet, it was easy for the boy to tease because the sentiment's source originated from a place of unabashed adoration. He had complete faith in his sibling, in the hard work that had been put in and the effort expressed to see it through. And if, by some cruel turn of fate, the Bourbaki Institute was not meant to be, then Eoran would give up everything and run away with him just as easily. He was a spectator to the glow of Kaden’s tremendous adeptness, his number one fan.

The boy was already in the kitchen by the time he had finished the proposal. Rushing water created a racket as it filled the oxidized metal of the kettle. Eoran struck a match to light the stove.

“If mom finds out, she’s going to kill us or I’m going to have to raise you to adulthood on the streets and then you definitely won’t get into college,” the older teen, somehow always patient despite the younger boy’s exuberance, was already starting to blow under the edge of the envelope. He teased up an edge for the steam to catch on. “I’d be the worst father.”

Kaden ruffled his brother’s hair as they stood before the stove, watching expectantly for the water to boil.

“I want you to try to get into that highschool I went to,” the elder imparted, quiet and serious in the comedown of their jokes. They were just far enough apart that Kaden was ever indulgent of Eoran’s curiosities, his questions, his desire to learn. Even Eo’s direct assault on authority when he couldn’t have his way was encouraged, much to the chagrin of the mother that had to deal with the disrespect and the backtalk. “You’re smart, Eo. You just gotta study. Focus.  And get mad. That school will piss you off so much, you'll be getting straight A's in no time."

A grumble shook within the confines of Eoran's throat. Life was surely not a game, and the youngest Toriet felt that truth quickly tear into the security blanket of humors he had gathered around himself. In an instant his lanky frame wilted, shoulders slumped, expression drab in the atmospheric shift of their new sobriety.

"Yeah, but I'm not like you, Kaden. I don't have the stuff you have," Eoran said in a low voice shared between them only. He was flustered by the uncertainty of himself and his future. "It's not that I don't want to do right by our parents, or even that I'm not willing to try, it's just that..." He paused struggling to find the right word to express his thoughts.

"I'm just terrified. Not even about high school, but Bourbaki. Like, I know you're scared to see what's in that envelope, but you've worked so hard to get to where you are. You're resilient like mom. How can they say no to that? Me, on the other hand, I can't compare. Most days, I feel like I can see everything except for what's in front of me. It sucks, but…” Whatever conclusion his adolescent mind had been working toward was forgone.

The words were a flood of sentiment, but if there was anyone who Eoran could be honest with, it was his brother.

“Hey, c’mon Eo.” The older boy wrapped an arm around the youth, pulling him from the flood of his thoughts, the riptide of his own self-doubt. “Everyone’s brain is different. Someday you’re gonna look and when everyone sees the thing that’s right in front of them and they can’t take their eyes off it, they’re going to need you to see all the things around it to bring them back to their senses—”

The whistle of the kettle interrupted Kaden’s words and he swiftly turned the heat off, before the upstairs and downstairs families started yelling about the racket, telling their mother they were inconsiderate boys, heating up the building making tea on such a hot day.

"We're standing upon the precipice of our futures, Kaden," Eoran said with a mortal severity that clashed with his puerile vigor. "This is make or break for us."

There was a symbiosis between them that surpassed innate bonds of blood. Kaden's younger brother may have always lingered in his shadow, but Eoran very much used his sibling as a barometer to gauge the various expectations of him. If Kaden did not make it into the school, then there was certainly no way Eoran would get in. But, if his brother did triumph in the face of Port Haven's systemically mandated adversity, Eoran would have to start taking things seriously. He felt this possibility to his core, suddenly, as if really experiencing the ineffable weight of a seemingly insuperable trial and the pressures for success from his parents for the first time.

The boy took a bracing breath. He looked to his brother and asked: "Well...?"

Letting the rising steam creep under the lip of the envelope, that dark eyed boy and his blood like a lure, knuckles close to blistering, pulled the letter free from the envelope.

“Dear Mr. Toriet,” Kaden read, his voice shaking. “Upon reviewing your application for admission to Bourbaki Institute, the admissions council was torn. It is with rarity that a young wright with utility such as yours finds the tenacity and willpower to pursue a higher calling with The Expressionists, and even rarer for such applications to be submitted with high marks, community service, and letters of recommendations from any of the schools that Bourbaki typically recruits from.”

Perhaps the hopeful scholar was reading ahead just slightly, his hands beginning to tremble as he paused at the next indent.

"Ugh, I hate these people!" Suspense aggrandized Eoran's frustration. Left hanging, the boy raised his hands; shook them expectantly in Kaden's direction. "Kaden! What does that even mean!"

“W-we…” Kaden could barely form the words, the final result of so much effort, so much sacrifice weighing like an executioner’s weight on his chest. He could barely breathe through the clearing of his throat. He applied force to round the depths of his voice around the words. “We’re pleased to inform you of your admission to The Bourbaki Institute.”

Kaden’s shock was an anchor that rooted him to the stun, agape in silence.

Thrilled, Eoran covered his mouth and screamed victory into the echo chamber of his hands. It was impossible for the older boy to know that the mind of his sibling was already piecing together the attributes of what would grow to be a scheme. It was impossible for the Toriet children to know that this glimpse of success was the beginning of the end.

Later that night, when the hours of the day before and the day to come merged into an epoch of timelessness beneath the darkened sky, the boys took to the stoop outside of their building. The sound of the neighborhood had quelled in the hangover of celebrations lauding Kaden's achievement and the distant roar of vocal confetti was scattered between shadowed alleys and the coalescence of dingy buildings that formed them. The day burned but its absence ushered reprieve. A breeze made mischief with a plastic bag, sending its possessed form tumbling down the thoroughfare.

Eoran perched upon the first step of the landing. His squat assumed an anuran form, head low, legs akimbo like a pitiful gargoyle. He followed the bag until it led him to his brother; it passed, but his stare lingered.

"Hey Kaden," he said after a moment that wasn't so much thoughtful as it was intrinsically preparatory, "Remember when I was six and dad took me to see Nana Rettka so she could see what my utility was because the blood stuff wasn't really working, and she said I had a gift of sight? I was thinking..." The pause was ripe with a sedition that was enriched by the punctuation of an erratically flickering street lamp.

Suspicious near immediately of his junior’s tone, Kaden Toriet, first generation of his family to attend a college at all nevermind the Bourbaki Institute, strolled up to the stoop. He stopped in front of the baby gargoyle he called a brother, both hands in his pockets. The teens ears were red from a bit of celebratory drink he’d not been able to refuse from Uncle Enji and the three Aunties he called wives from the far end of the block.

Kaden’s utility, as they called it here, was his father’s utility, and his grandfather’s utility. The call of the blood, their father would say when they were children. He would always tell them the old tales, the parables that decorated the walls of those now forgotten temples, left in ruin by scavengers and artillery. To call the blood is our family’s birthright, it is how we would send our prayers to Varonian. To pull the sacrifice from the body of our enemies, to send the viper like a messenger to Orin so that our bodies do not falter—this is old Varaket.

Their mother, on the other hand, was always more down to earth, tempering the fables their father spun with her constant reminders to work hard, to always question. There are no Gods waiting around for your snakes to hiss, Kirut, she would say in turn, always hard, ever frugal. It’s been a century since a sacrifice was made and we still die, husband. Your stories, they scare Eo—let them rest, ah.

Kaden couldn’t help but smirk at his brother’s nervous energy, his excitement that crackled like the firecrackers still going off on the next street over. “What were you thinking, Eoran?”

“So I have pretty much no chance of getting into Bourbaki without help, right? I’m not talking about the kind of help you got either, where people just give you more homework and books to read.” Schemes were always couched in explanation—that was the crux of the sell. A small finger beckoned the older boy nearer, making the picture the child was presenting complete, a peddler of word-based wares, secrets among the shadows encroaching on their stoop-space that night.

“I need real help. If I can see the work before I have to do it, then maybe I will have a better chance of understanding it. Right? Well, I was thinking you could maybe...switch an eye with me.” It was the most Eoran had ever asked of his brother. He was already beginning to show signs of crumpling under the pressure instilled by the great expectation of their parents. “So that I can learn better.” So that he could game the system better.

Kaden almost acted like he didn’t hear the request. His shock at such an idea left him without an expression in the lamplit dark, his long hair like branches of the black barked trees that peppered the Ossan landscape but had difficulty taking root in Amstead’s clayless soil. The teen came to sit next to his younger brother, squinting into the street.

“Have you thought about this? Really, thought about it. If anything ever happens to me, your utility is stuck, isn’t it?” Kaden shook his head. “We have to talk to Nana if you want to do this. You know I’ll help you in whatever way I’m able, but if mom and dad knew you were putting your gift at risk for a shot at Bourbaki, if they knew I was letting you, they’d skin me alive.”

“What good is the gift if I can’t use it to help me when I need it the most?” Eoran watched Kaden to see if his reasoning was taking hold. “Of course I’ve thought about it. I’ve been thinking about it this entire time. You think mom and dad value some natural ability over all the risks they take and energy they spend to even just give us this chance of success? I can’t let them down, Kaden. I know it’s cheating, but it’s the only shot I have.” The younger boy rose from his perch, impetuous; ready.

“Besides, if I ever do lose my utility then that’s probably for the best. Then people will think I’m just a foreign piece of trash rather than a bloodwright piece of trash.” The words were blasphemous to the Ossan culture that had raised him. To speak ill of one's gift, to think of it as something easily disposable, a thing that one would be better without, was akin to spitting upon the graves of their ancestors. Eoran was being careless with the double-edged sword life had given him—in Amstead, and its main metropolis Port Haven, the difference between the two classifications ascribed to Ossans were enormous. Foreigners were annoying. Bloodwrights were dangerous.

More than anything, Eoran’s safety was paramount. To secure Eoran’s future at Bourbaki was, to Kaden, something that would ensure future success, future happiness, future pride. Lips pressed together in thought, Kaden’s steepled fingers were a testament to his stance that rose and fell like a sine wave.

Kaden could’ve been their parents in this moment. Told Eoran to keep his eye, to focus up and work hard. He could have told him all the stories their parents told them both before—about hardship, about trouble, about failure, about pain. He could have been responsible, he could have made the choice that was, objectively, better.

But instead, Kaden chose to be the elder brother whose duty was always to protect his younger brother, no matter the cost.

The bloodwright prodigy, heir to the Toriet’s bloodwright burden and their archaic blood God of mercy, closed his eyes and sighed. “What do I need to do?”

"Keep track of the blood," Eoran replied bleakly, briefly looking back to his brother as he started down the road. "Just kidding, I already scoped a guy out. Follow me."

The feasibility of scooping out one's eye with a grapefruit spoon was part of a much earlier stage of contemplation that the boy had run himself through. Its cancellation came just past inception—Eoran, inept at his own anatomy, knew that there was stuff connecting his eye to his head but he wasn't sure how much there exactly was, or if he had the wherewithal to endure its severing without waking up the entire neighborhood. So, while the parties celebrating his brother had been raging during the dying breaths of that day, Eoran had been out hunting; searching for just the right back-alley surgeon cum body-modder who'd be willing to see things from the youngest Toriet's precise (and precarious) perspective.

The path he took was convoluted, but calculated to be the shortest. Eoran had an uncanny grasp on the geography of the Ossan landscape in which they lived. He knew exactly which avenues to prioritize over others, depending on the amount of sketch contained therein at any given point of the day, and the shortcuts employed to connect them. The wright he had struck a deal with was not terribly far away from the family’s tenement. Eoran skittered through the darkness as though he was allergic. He didn’t want to lose his brother, but any abatement of pace would have been a chance for him to catch cold feet.

Rounding the last bend, they emerged onto a street whose window-lined walls were violently splashed with a chromatic cascade of neon emanating from a single source: a parlor, in the dead middle of that dense assemblage of buildings, whose services fit for public consumption were touted by the frenetic collage of glowing-gas signs. Eoran ducked inside.

“Shit, kid, you do not give up,” the pretty brunette behind the oblong counter commented without looking up from her magazine. Following a barely perceptible tilt of her head, she shouted into a space obfuscated by a black velvet curtain, “…ORIKA! HE’S BACK.”

The guy Eoran had settled upon was actually a girl. She emerged from behind the curtain and sat meaty knuckles atop her wide hips. The bend of her arms highlighted muscles that seemed too large for a simple tattoo and piercing artist. A wifebeater, combined with a long, scrolling epithet in Ossan script, wrapped around a bulging bicep, suggested that maybe she enjoyed some sort of wrestling or martial arts on the side.

“Damn. I didn’t expect you to actually bring your guardian,” Orika said, eyes lifting to meet Kaden. “You ok with this? He’s not holding you hostage, is he?”

Kaden looked at his younger brother in alarm, stunned that he’d managed to accomplish so much in the brief time between the letter opening with their parents and the celebrations of his Bourbaki admissions. If Eoran had applied the same capability to his schoolwork, maybe he wouldn’t need Kaden’s eye to begin with. “No, I’m not a hostage.” Not having much background or necessity for flesh crafting, he’d only ever been to these sorts of places when there had been accidents—then his father usually came and, after a time, it was Kaden himself who came to call the blood back. The teen stepped forward, standing tall. “Orika, right? I called blood for you a few years ago, didn’t I? A fight broke out at the Llamella and you were fixing someone’s face.”

Kaden warmed a little to the shop, having a bit more bearing now that he remembered where his family stood in this room.

Orika's expression softened from that of a butcher appraising the cuts of meat before her, to one of friendly recognition. As she stepped around the counter, she smiled, lips parting to show big lines of ivory teeth that were interspersed with reconstituted and slightly malformed shards of metallic detritus.

"OH YEA! Yea, yea. I remember you now!" Her giant hand slapped Kaden's back fondly, oblivious to her power. "Ay, Lep, check out this guy right here. Remember me talking about him? Skinny guy with the long hair? The pretty one?"

Stolid eyes, radiantly lavender and thickly rimmed with kohl, briefly peered over the top of the magazine she was reading before retreating. "…Uh-huh."

"Phew, I can still see it clear as day. That kebab skewer jammed into that one guy's neck, that other guy’s face all out of order. You were a lifesaver—not to me, but them, haha!" It wasn't that good of a joke, but Orika seemed to enjoy it. Her arm looped around Kaden's shoulders to drag him toward the back room. Eoran followed.

“So your boy tells me that you guys are looking to switch an eyeball,” Orika continued, taking them past rooms marked private and down a cinder block-lined stairwell that was illuminated by a red bulb suspended at the end of a crimped, half-exposed wire. “I can do that for you, no problem. You know, it’s funny, at first I thought he was trying to hustle me, but I guess he was being honest. Said that you were being shipped away and he couldn’t stand the thought of losing touch. I get that, being alone’s tough—”

“Hey, come on!” Eoran protested, like there was some vulgarity in revealing his methods despite the underlying truth at the heart of his persuasion. Orika just laughed again.

The bottom of the stairwell was blocked by a metal door, unlocked with a key quickly retrieved from a pocket in a field of many, a patchwork of storage dotting the utilitarian fabric of her loose-fitting pants. She held the heavy door open for her customers but let it close with a slam; a crisp and sobering sound that sharpened the air in that pre-op period. Inside was sparse, but gave the appearance of being adequately supplied for the tasks the fleshcrafter performed. There was a gurney, a couch, and a light that, when lit, nearly seared pupils that were more accustomed to the darkness which preceded its glare. It was less frightening in sight than sound—basement surgery just had a inherently malicious ring to it.

“Sit,” was the woman’s command. “Any questions or concerns before we get started?”

Kaden laughed at Eoran’s protest, his story out now. He’d have to remember it for later, the admission worth at least a week of teasing when they were recovering from this. Orika’s genuine hospitality to the Toriet boy enough to quell any trepidation he felt in regards to getting his eye spooned out and replaced with a younger, newer model.

“Is it going to hurt him?” Kaden’s primary concern was for Eoran, after all. “And the recovery time—is it significant?” Directly translated: Would their mother be beating the living shit out of the both of them for desecrating their bodies later?

"Oh, it's going to hurt you both," Orika spoke above a fanfare of clatter, the opening movements of a brisk preparatory symphony. "But that's the nature of what you guys signed up for. The procedure—heh,” said as if she had never considered the formality of the term prior to that moment, “itself won't take long, but trading eyeballs is no simple thing for a body to undergo, you know? Even though you're related, the matter is still foreign." She hammered the lid of a jar against the edge of counter she worked on, frustrated by its lack of cooperation. Sated by its punishment, however, Orika turned and folded her arms across her broad chest.

"Since you have the blood, I'd imagine that the healing process will be quicker for you. Not sure about the little one, though. Might help that he's getting some of your blood in the process; you could probably help him out when it's all said and done. There will be bruising—there always is. Full sight will probably return once the connections have had time to get used to each other again. I can link them up, but I can’t exactly make them talk. It's a gamble, but that's life, right?" She smiled exuberantly.

Lep, from upstairs, entered a moment later. Her arms were wrapped around a lunch cooler full of ice.

"That it? You guys ready?" Orika looked to both in turn. Eoran swallowed hard, then nodded.

Kaden, as far as a teenager going into a random basement selected by his fourteen year old brother to have his eye gouged out by the pluckiest fleshcrafter in Port Haven, managed not to look phased. If this was what Eoran wanted, no, needed to find stability in his life, to realize the immigrant dream their parents had trained into them before they could even walk, then what was a little pain?

A little pain was nothing for a lifetime of success.

“Thank you Orika,” the blood caller said as he sat where he was directed. “That sounds fine. Your hospitality and discretion is incredibly appreciated—I wish I could tell you just how much this means to me and Eoran.”

"Yeah, well, don't get too moony. It's not for nothin'." Orika did have a business to run, afterall.It seemed a minor few details of her and Eoran's earlier conversation remained undeclared. She moved behind the boys and placed her hands upon their shoulders. Lep sat the cooler on a bar cart-turned-surgical stand, wheeled it to collect the necessary tools Orika had been previously gathering, then parked it in front of where they were gathered. Glass and brass filled the valley formed in the space between the Toriets' knees.

The fleshcrafter's assistant was an infinitely more restrained individual. She quietly doled out a diaphanous liquid into two jars and held them to each boy's nose. When Eoran lifted a hand to take it, she gently replied, "Nope. You'll spill."

His hand retreated to take Kaden's instead.

Lep kept her eyes alternating between them. She cooed, "Relax. Breathe slow. Breathe deep."

The liquid smelled like a mockery of candy. It was a machination of convalescence, a gateway made from compacted molecules commixed to form a synthesis of slumbersome vapors. Its bottle was brown but the label had been removed so that it wore shreds of ghastly chalk, the aftermath of its glaringly obvious unethical acquisition.

"Relax. Slow. And deep."

The edges of the room wavered, uncertain about the laws of their geometry. They were made cold by the spectrum of light that hovered above like a dying sun, a supernova burning through the concrete atmosphere of that basement’s sky.

"Relax slow and deep

The world was sinking in upon itself, swallowing itself into the slow weight of its own deep core and slowly relaxing into the deep tides of the chemical hypnosis that" fought to take them into the, absence of slow soundscapes and the impermanence of deep planate. angles the nothingness of existence that lurked just beyond their world of, colors and warmth and slow and deep and relax eddied the asseverations of a clarion call too deep to be retrieved from the militant night

       making their bo n  e s

                                                                      colla p s e sl o w


          rel a x     a nd ,









              ence to the artificial sleep came. Consciousness relented.

Orika laid the boys down and pulled over a stool on wheels with her foot to sit. Once Lep had adjusted the light above so she could better see, the work began. It was quick, but bloody, a series of sacrificial slices upon the tips of her fingers made so she could better sew the pair back together. The eyeballs squelched as they were pried and severed from the viscous home of their former sockets; they slurped as they were slipped into the moist confines of their new homes, attached on the far side of each ocular moon. The spilled blood was a product of communal indiscretion, gathering tufts of hair in their harvest, beading into plashes on the ground.

And then, a short time later, it was back to the realm of the living.

Eoran woke, groggy and still heavy and hurting more and more as the vapors continued to fade. He was greeted by the blushing blue of a new dawn. They had been moved to a recovery room of sorts so the girls could attend to the mess; an empty private room near the front of the shop. He rubbed his forehead, his cheeks—gently. Flakes of dried blood clung to his fingers.

“Eoran,” the older boy groaned, flaking blood off his jaw, lethargy still keeping his fingers heavy, arms weak. “Mom’s going to fucking murder us.”

Even now, the bloodcaller was more concerned about their next hustle than he was about his own pain, his own temporary blindness—even though that was of extreme concern to Kaden. How was he going to go through his time at Bourbaki with one eye? He couldn’t be Ossan AND a pirate. The juxtaposition would be too much to bear.

“Are you okay? We need to figure out what we’re going to tell mom and dad.”

“Yeah...” Answer, agreement, commencement of another grift; it was all the same to Eoran in his current state. “Uh... do you think they’ll notice we’ve been gone all night?

“Kaden, if she comes at me from the side, I’m toast.” The younger boy lifted a hand, mapped the edges of his absent periphery.

“Yes I think they will notice that we have been gone all night,” Kaden replied flatly, trying to decide on the phrasing of the eulogy that would be engraved upon his urn. Kaden Toriet, almost a scholar until he was murdered with a kitchen cleaver for violating curfew while recovering from  impromptu basement surgery. “We can... blame trenchants. Or one of the uncles. They’d cover for us, right?”

Eoran leaned back, pressed his disheveled hair into the wall. A few stiff strands, caked with blood and sweat, audibly crunched under the weight of his skull.

“I think it has to be a trenchant,” he reasoned. “I don’t trust any of the uncles, ‘cause you know one of them is just going to get super drunk and spill it to the whole neighborhood. It gives them the upper hand, where if...if we escaped from a trenchant then maybe mom and dad’ll just be happy to see us. Our lives are worth more than some injuries, right?”

“But why would a trenchant mess with our eyes? How do we explain the fact that we might be half blind now, both of us?” Kaden’s words were low now, the vibrant red of his nerves candid on his face. He was going to have to give up nearly all of his savings to pay for this operation too—how did they explain THAT to their mom?

“I don’t know,” Eoran said, resignation both appending itself to and exacerbating the lugubrious haze he struggled to emerge from. He closed his eyes, although in function the action was more singular, and thought through the assiduous pain that thrummed throughout a whole half of his face. He refocused (poorly).

“It was a fight. Maybe they just kept punching us in the eyes. Or they punched one of us in the eye then pushed us down some stairs when the other one tried to stop them? You ever see someone and you just want to hammer their face in? Something like that. If we start rumors as we’re walking back, then the story practically will make itself. People can’t keep anything to themselves—the neighborhood’ll do the legwork to make the story true.” Eoran turned his meager sight to his brother. “I could probably take a few more bruises, if you think it’s necessary. Can you call blood like that? Just below the surface of my skin?”

“I… yes.” The young scholar would continue to be perplexed by his brother's forethought—but fear made men out of boys. Or at least made them scramble to cover their tracks as best they could. Producing a matchbox full of needles from his pocket, that darkened youth pulled himself from the recovery bed. “It'll hurt a bit. Are you ready?”

Kaden pulled a needle from his pack before he put the matchbox away, poised to draw his blood to call the bruises to color their skin.

“Yeah.” Eoran picked himself up from the chair in which he had been seated and stumbled the short distance to his brother. He was in too deep to say no to a little more pain now.

Hands shaking, Kaden pricked his finger, a fine drop of blood forming in the grooves of his fingerprints. They sat there, hunched, the blood caller murmuring the old prayers their father had taught them as he turned his brother's skin yellow and purple from their stories violence, turned his own wrists the color of rope burns. They were like ancient storytellers, drawing the evidence of their mythology upon their skin to prove their belief, their existence, an offering to a God that traded in blood bruises and welts.

Eoran sat quiet as he was contused, even though his expression was telling its own harrowing tale. His bones ached as his platelets were guided by the adjuration of their momentary master; his muscles mourned their brief loss in the redirection forced by the remote whispers of his brother's tongue. Mutely, he hoped that the bloodcaller's sacrifice was payment enough for their petty knavery, or else he would have to devise some way to make prayer-apologies retroactive. The boy was entirely confident that he could pull the wool over his parents' eyes; he was less so when the object of his chicanery was sacrosanct.

“We just have to maintain the story,” Kaden reassured his brother, guilty in the orchestration of their subterfuge. Maybe in the future, he would see misfortune as a reprisal for his complicity in the coverup, but for now, it seemed the best option. “The same story to every person who sees us.”

“And we have to be seen by every person that’s out,” Eoran reiterated, bringing the point of bent knuckle to his good eye and furiously rubbing to stimulate irritation. It was the finishing touches to the ruse—tears, sniffles. “Alright. Let’s do this.”

Kaden’s own face, already hollow, affected a shell-shocked indifference that read from a thousand yards. “Every person. Let’s go.”

They didn’t encounter another soul until they hit the main street, well away from Orika’s surgical theatre—and the souls they encountered were many as they emerged near the morning markets, the vendors beginning to set up their stalls.

“You poor boys!” Nana Omayan exclaimed, dropping her bolts of fabrics to comfort Eoran’s trauma, to assess the damage Kaden sustained. “Your mother has been looking for you all night—tell Nana Omayan what has been done to you.”

The rope burns, the bruises, the trauma to their eyes,
and under it all, the tiniest untraceable prick of
Kaden’s lying fingerprint.

"I met Kaden on the way h-home from Uncle Enji's last night because he got into Bourbaki and we were all really happy for him and celebrating b—but then some trenchants wanted to see our papers and and they wouldn't let us leave and then they...they...they..." Blubbering trumped cohesion. Eoran clung to the clothes Nana Omayan wore, gripping her skirt, clutching at the silks that were draped around her elderly form to better sow his seed of deceit. The waterworks were in full effect. His head was pounding from the surgery now, and while he would have preferred that it didn't, he couldn't deny that it was not lending some authenticity to his performance.

A crowd quickly gathered from the commotion, expressions of sympathy mixed with indignation for having to exist within the boundaries of Port Haven's broken system. The true gift of the Toriet boys may have been their ability to inhabit their elaborate falsehoods, but Eoran liked to tell himself it was survival of the fittest.

The elder Toriet said nothing, his brother’s performance more than enough to secure their safety, cement their story in the heart of the community. He stared with his one good eye into the street, a sunbleached billboard announcing the successes of Telos’ space program in the shadow where his vision no longer reached.
flashback, Eoran, Kadenja, Liz, NenNen Chang