Palo Alto Weekly 32nd Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Young Adult

The Hands and The Mouth

By yves.

About Yves

Yves lives in Palo Alto and is a senior at a local high school. Yves writes under the pen name "yves." and prefers to publish anonymously. In April Yves published a book, "Something's Not Right," about a world where monsters and humans alike are forced to contend with what the world believes is right, according to Yves' book summary. Yves is active in the Reedsy online writing community and writes "so as not to forget."

 

Inspiration:
I was thinking about types of speech and the like, and I thought about how interesting it would be to have someone narrate, out loud, their own thoughts and actions, as in a script. From there, I started thinking about how other people would treat that kind of person and eventually came up with Rosauro: sweet, gentle and the perfect target.

 

Judge's comments

An elaborate chase scene in a future time through a new dimension. And yet, this witty, provocative science fiction feels more probable than not. And ultimately more human than we would have ever expected.
— Tom Parker

The boy runs into the market, stops, looks around. Before he even sees me, I can feel how his eyes will catch and stick. Then there's his panicked jog, flowing sleeves tucked into his sides, and the twisting of a large gold ring around his hands as he catches his breath, waiting to speak to me.

You get all kinds in New Riesia. Foreigners, natives—everybody's different enough to be the same here, which means I have no idea where this kid could have come from. He might have lived here sixteen years, or maybe he's just gotten off the balloon. Either way, he looks like he's going to trust me, and all because we happen to have the same arrangement—two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth, and four appendages. Skin, too; we share that in common, unlike the mechs that are entering the marketplace, swinging their salt-iron heads left and right.

Oh, shit.

The mechs are for him.

He swallows, and in another moment, speaks:

"He doesn't have much time. Soon they will see him again, and take him away. Rosauro imagines a cage; a small, dark cage, where they will put things like him. Special things, that they can look at and laugh over and keep forever in their master's houses. ROSAURO (panicked): I need somewhere to hide. Please."

My mouth drops open.

He stares at me, and adds, "ROSAURO: I'm trying to find my way. Can you help me?"

Of course I can help him. I've lived here all my life; I have three different hidey-holes, places I live in that I've taken over or dug out, in three different corners of the city. Things like that require watching, waiting, getting to know everybody, doing those little things that make everyone like you, that get you money—and knowing where you are. Always.

The mechs' spinning, silver-blue eyes lock onto him. There's a whirring sound, and the crowd around us begins to dissipate, not wanting to get in the way of the mess. The guy—Rosauro?—looks behind him, then grabs onto my arm.

"ROSAURO (pleading, desperate): Please!"

I grab his hand, and run.

He's a lucky guy. He could have easily picked some humanoid who didn't know more of the city than the Core, but nope, he got me—someone who runs, someone who could think, in half a second, of six different places we could hide in, and then just as fast find the best one. Someone who still knows enough to keep your mouth shut and sign if you want to get your way, in Common, like a normal person. I yank Rosauro's arm and pull him down an alleyway, something the mechs are too thick to get into. They could send for dogs, of course, and try to smell us out that way, mechanically speaking, but that would take too long, and what they want—

Well, I guess I don't know what they want. But I assume it involves him, and the way he talks.

I yank Rosauro's arm and point upwards, where a series of carved footholds (made by Aito, three years ago; nice guy, hired me to fix his fence) lead up right to the buildings' roofs. Aito won't be around, not anymore, and we can use his system—I shove Rosauro up onto the first steps and follow close behind. The mechs surround the building; I wonder if these can climb without handholds; the old models couldn't. I haven't worked on any of them since the new camera updates happened, something like a year ago.

The mechs are big, and dumb, but not bad for their jobs. They're fast and intimidating, and pretty much anyone who looks into their tall metal faces yields pretty fast. Which means they're probably not after Rosauro's rings, or his pretty clothing either. I'm guessing that they're after him.

Stupid kid, I want to tell him. Opening your mouth like that.

I thought all of the story-speakers were gone. Stuff about them used to be on the TVs; big talk show panels about whether we should shoot them or drive them into tiny holes in the ground, and always ending with that same old question—Why can't they just talk normal?

In a world of creatures with four eyes and seventy tongues, someone's still bound to get the shaft.

Rosauro has no upper body strength; he clambers over onto the top of the roof just barely fast enough to keep the mechs from reaching him, they're climbing up the sides using windows as footholds and god damn it I forgot they could do that; I grab Rosauro's arm and run. He follows me, jumping from roof to roof, gasping all the way. I have to pull him on by the fourth; the mechs are still behind us and they're going to keep following. I tug on Rosauro's sleeve—fine, soft material, something he probably made himself—and slip into a window. It takes a moment, just a moment, for him to follow me, dropping clumsily onto the floor, and then we're standing in someone's bathroom.

We run through the house, knocking over tables and triangular TVs, until we make it to another window, where we can switch houses, and then (thank god) a slide, one of those real old-fashioned cold stone things that leads out back to the paths by the canals, right up from the roofs—

"Rosauro has lived here for years now, hiding from the people who want to hurt him, but he has never been this far from the Core. He is lost, desperately so, and he is afraid that the other boy is going to lead him somewhere far worse than even the mechs' cages. He thinks—"

I clap a hand over his mouth, because Shut. Up. His eyes widen; I remove my hand. I feel awful.

Then I push him down the slide.

He screams (bad idea bad idea) and I move to go after him immediately—

There is a mech at the bottom, waiting. It is tall, spidery, human in its odd-jointed limbs, and it grabs Rosauro, who beats at it with his short, beringed fingers. I can't believe he's lived here at all and not learned to fight a mech, but then I realize that he's actually going to lose, he's only aiming for the eyes, and the thing's much hardier in the face—

I grab a lamp and slide down, stopping myself with one hand to swing and smash the damn thing in the neck, where the wires are most fragile. It falls, and Rosauro falls with it, tumbling into the water.

"ROSAURO: Help!"

I dive in without thinking, grabbing him. Again: lived here for years now, doesn't know how to swim? Doesn't know where to hit a mech? Doesn't know how to navigate past the Core? I hold onto the bank, trying to reorient myself, and Rosauro clings to me. He's warm, but shivering; I wonder whether he's as young as he seems. He's my height, isn't he? He might even be older.

Mostly, I am thinking that the last time I saw one of the story-speakers, they were getting shot in Jiny Square. TV debates going too slowly, I guess.

"ROSAURO (quietly): Please..."

I manage to haul him up onto the bank, slipping off slightly myself, and I barely manage to grab a piece of the bank on the way back. No land here; it's all hard-packed stones and golden pebbles.

I heave myself up, and Rosauro even offers me his hand, though he's so light it doesn't feel like he's doing anything. He looks at me for a moment, brows turned up in fear, and his lips part. I don't know how to keep him from talking; I don't think there is a way. And then, beyond the instinct, I get the feeling that I want to know what he's going to say.

"ROSAURO:," he says, and I hold onto his shoulders. I need to know. "Thank you."

I look at him, my eyes darting across his face, taking it all in—bronze skin, irascibly long curls, big dark eyes. I almost open my own mouth.

Then the mechs return, over the body of their dead friend, and Rosauro smacks into me, terrified. We're not going to be able to disable them all—hell, I don't know the last time I met anyone near tall enough to reach their necks to begin with. Kanso made his stilts, yeah, but that was almost seven years ago, when I wasn't old enough to drive a dinghy—

Now it's Rosauro who takes my hand, and we run again. I lead him in and out of alleyways, sidewalks, across roads and down to another place where two canals meet, where my apartment is, where nobody can get to but us. I tug on his arm, and he follows me onto the cliff edge.

They didn't build a bank here. Not really. They just let the water rush down, down, down, and so what might have become a bank became a narrow strip of stone, just on the outer layer of the thick Core announcement pillars. Rosauro closes his eyes, and sways slightly.

"He has always been afraid of heights... Ever since he was a little boy..."

I reach out, and Rosauro gives me his hand. This one has only one ring, I notice; silver, with an inscription. I can't read it from here, but I feel now the metal against my skin as I walk out onto the ledge.

We have to go one foot at a time.

I don't look behind me—that would mean falling for sure, looking anywhere but ahead would mean falling—but I can hear Rosauro's high, frightened sounds. The water rushes below us, hitting scrap metal and shattering across the rocks, and I squeeze Rosauro's hand to make him feel safer. When we reach the hole, the place I carved into the back of the pillar, I hear Rosauro sigh, and he almost wobbles, but I hold on. He rubs the back of my hand with his thumb, and I almost fall in then, too.

But we make it. Little by little, we make it. I head in first, ducking, and then Rosauro follows. There's a little rug, and a table, and benches along both the right and left wall—no, I couldn't be assed to carve the walls all the way back, so those are benches now—and I lead him to the left wall's bench. It's probably more solid.

"He looks around, shocked by what he finds. He pays for his apartment from his weaving, but this is something someone built—something the other boy, he realizes, must have built. He has so many questions; he can't figure out the right one to ask first. ROSAURO:" he says, and I'm waiting. I'm waiting this time, I'm ready. Nobody knows about my apartment, and the mechs won't be able to climb the ledge—no footholds large enough, no windows here... "...You saved me."

I look at him—just look at him, really look at him. I realize since he first spoke to me in the market, I haven't had a single second of trying to hide myself from him. I don't know how long it's been since I've let somebody take notice of me.

Our eyes meet.

Rosauro's lips part gently.

"A beat," he says, so quietly I almost don't catch it. Then I smile. Rosauro waits, but I don't open my mouth, and then he looks worried again.

"ROSAURO: Nobody should be afraid to speak." Rosauro's lips turn up into a sweet grin. "(abashedly) I write, to give the orders. To pay the rent. But still I think—" He stops, nervous. "I'm sorry. I don't know if—you can't talk—"

I shake my head. There's a difference between can't and don't talk, I think. I almost say. My mouth is dry. I meet Rosauro's fingers, curled into fists, across the table, and he unfurls them slowly so that we can hold hands again.

"He remembers his rings. He hopes they're not uncomfortable, in fact, he moves—" Rosauro begins to take his hands away, but I pull them back, shaking my head. Rosauro smiles, but his eyes stay sad. "...he doesn't even know the other boy's name."

Talk. Talk. Talk. Talk. The command echoes in my head, bouncing around, and I try to make it stick. I have to do it. I have to talk. It's okay, it's okay, I can talk now—if I can talk, maybe he's right, maybe it's been so long I won't be able to talk, and I think that would be the worst thing of all. I open my mouth. Rosauro squeezes my hands encouragingly, and then I hear my own voice again, slightly hoarse, and I say:

"It has been so long since Graecen has met someone like him."

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