“Why are you so surprised? This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” I said in exasperation.
“I hate you, you bastard!” she yelled and charged out of the office. I stood there unmoving, a single arm upraised as if to stop her. I let it fall back to my side.
A chuckle, “Wow, now you’ve even got thirteen-year-olds calling you a bastard, eh.”
I cast Reinard a quelling glance. He didn’t seem any less amused. Perhaps more, even. I sat down on the couch Reinard had in his small office, scrubbed my face with a hand, and sighed.
“I’ve gotta say, I absolutely love seeing you like this. So far and away from the you of the good ol’ bad ol’ days. You really have changed, man.” Reinard lounged comfortably behind his desk with his feet up on it.
“How’s that surprising? What’s weird is that you haven’t changed a single bit, you irrepressible, little shit.”
“Thanks, I try,” was all he said.
There was a moment of silence as I sat there considering my options. I was confused. I was sure this is what she’d wanted, but instead she calls me a bastard and then runs off. Why wouldn’t she want to stay here with children her own age rather than following an old, broken cynic like me around the wastes?
I got up off of Reinard’s couch and moved to look out his office’s window. Beyond the window there was a yard. The sound of children playing seeped into the office through the window. There was a wide range of ages. The youngest had aides constantly watching over them.
I glanced back at Reinard, feet still on his desk, waiting patiently for me to continue. He was strange. How could he have changed so much while changing so little? His personality was still the same, but his values were so different from what they had been. I suppose I wasn’t really any different though.
“I don’t understand, Reinard.”
I heard him sigh behind me. “Listen, Koli, this girl—Christ, what was her name again?”
I turned around and leaned against the window. “Layla.”
“Right. Layla. You said she was tagging along behind you for like a year or two. During which you protected her, fed her, clothed her, made sure she was in good health . . . am I missing anything? The world out there”—he gestured to the window behind me—“is a miserable shit hole, and she lived in that shit hole for years before you came along and decided to take her under your wing.
“I’ve been doing this for, oh, going on sixty years now, and, man, have I seen shit. I’m talking ten, eleven-year-olds showing signs of rape trauma. Missing limbs, eyes, deformities from being exposed to some foul shit; if you can name it then I’ve seen it.
“That’s the world you saved Layla from, and she knows it. And, however much it may pain you to hear it, she loves you. Judging from the way she speaks to you she’d never say it, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that that’s how she feels. That’s why she got angry. You may think this is best for her, but the way she sees it is that you’re trying to get rid of her, and if you are trying to get rid of her then she must’ve been nothing but a nuisance these past couple of years.”
“I never said she was a nuisance!” I nearly shouted.
“Weren’t you listening to what I said? She’s a thirteen-year-old girl. That right there is just about the most insecure thing in the universe; of course she’s going to feel that way if you do what you’re trying to do. Not to mention the fact that you’re trying to leave her in the company of strangers. She may also be afraid that things could go back to being the way they were before she met you.”
I couldn’t say he was wrong. I sighed again and sat back down on the couch.
“I don’t like it,” I said. “It’s not safe for her out there. I can’t keep watch all the time. No one can. One day I’ll slip up, miss some minor detail, something, and then she’ll be gone.”
“If I may ask, why do you just wander out there? What purpose does that serve? You already killed all of the ones who wanted you dead. Any of the other family members who harbor ill will towards you were scared off by that final performance of yours. Wandering from place to place doesn’t keep you safe from something that doesn’t exist.”
“I . . . I need to see it.”
“It? You mean that shit hole out there? My god, you’re one melancholy bastard, aren’t you. Why, for god’s sake? That
”—he gestured to the window once again—“isn’t your fault. Sure, you were one magnificent bastard back in the old days, but you didn’t do this to the world. You were already done by then. You’d already woken up. As far as I know you were the first to get a conscience. After me, of course.
“I’m about to make a suggestion. Don’t get all riled up or anything when I make it and no pressure or anything like that. Why don’t you and Layla live here, Koli? She’d be safe, and I could absolutely use your help defending this place. This place is a pretty big target for bandits, and enough of them are stupid enough to try it. Like you said, I can’t keep watch all the time. One day I’ll slip up, miss some minor detail or something, and it’d be nice if you were there to see that itty, bitty detail for me.
“Well, that’s all the time I have for now, got a class to teach. Go and find your little friend and apologize to her, why don’t you.”
It took me a while to find her, but I did eventually. She’d found a bench tucked away in a quiet corner of the complex. She didn’t look at me as I approached or as I sat down on the other end of the bench. She probably wouldn’t want me right next to her right now. I was almost certain that she’d been crying. It took me a while to gather my thoughts, but eventually I did.
“Layla,” I said, “the only thing I want, the only things I care about are your safety and your happiness. And I don’t believe you can truly find any of those out there. You know how ugly it is out there, and I’m not perfect. I will
make a mistake eventually. It’s only a matter of time.
“That’s why I want you here. In my cousin’s . . . whatever the hell it is. I believe that you’ll be safe here and that you can make friends and that you can be happy. And so—”
And suddenly she was clinging to me, crying and begging, “Please, Koli, don’t leave me here alone! I don’t wanna be left alone again! I love you, so please don’t leave me here, please!
” She buried her face in my shirt and kept on sobbing.
The little brat nearly brought me to tears. Me! I comforted her and stroked her hair, and eventually she calmed down.
Once she was calm enough to hear me I said, “I have no intention of leaving you here alone, Layla. In fact, I’ve decided that I’m going to stay here too.”