A queer feeling jerked him, and he stopped, staring at the front door which slowly opened outwards. There stood a man dressed all in black, from his shiny shoes to his broad brimmed hat, without moving or saying a word, just smiling and looking back at his new visitor. The more he looked at him, the more Arlo felt like he had seen this man before, though he had no idea when or where. The silence went on until the raven cawed, then the man gestured Arlo to come closer. When the boy still didn’t move, he just smiled a smile that promised friendship and protection, nodded and went inside, leaving the door open. Still unsure what to do, Arlo took a careful step towards the house. When nothing happened, he took one more, and one more, until he stepped inside, and before he could change his mind the door closed softly shut behind him. He stood in a bright hallway with panelled walls, a tiled stone floor softened by what looked like a homemade rug, and a wooden staircase turning gently upwards to the next floor along the opposite wall. At the foot of this staircase, one door at each side led to other rooms, the one to the left closed, the one to the right left open. Arlo had a feeling that that was the door he should go for, so he kicked off his shoes and took short, slow steps towards it. Peeking around the corner, he could see the man sitting in an armchair, stroking the raven which had settled down on a perch right next to him. Curious, but still unsure about what to make of the situation, Arlo took two steps over the door sill, then two more. All the while the man sat silent, his focus exclusively set on the bird. A silence lay over the room, only disturbed by the ruffling of feathers and talons moving from left to right, from right to left on the perch. Then Arlo couldn’t take it anymore:
“Hello?”, he said, and the man’s hand stopped stroking the bird, and his eyes finally sought Arlo’s.
“Hello”. His voice was low, soft, comforting, and familiar, making Arlo relax, without even knowing why. He was about to ask the man who he was, what sort of place this was, and why the raven had led him here, but just as he opened his mouth, he heard a ruckus coming down the stairs. The next moment a ginger haired girl around ten, holding a black and ginger tabby cat, ran in the door crying “Apollo!”. However, whatever she was about to say, she clearly forgot, because now she stopped abruptly and stared up at Arlo. “Who are you?”, she asked finally. But again Arlo only got as far as to open his mouth.
“This is Arlo”, Apollo said, amused. Shocked, Arlo turned to him again.
“You know my name?”. When the only answer he got was a smirk, Arlo got the feeling that this was obvious, like he should have known. Feeling stupid, he looked down at the cat instead. But the cat was currently watching something else, namely the raven, and the raven reciprocated the look. Suddenly the cat wriggled free from the girl’s grasp and leaped towards what was now reduced to a screeching mass of black feathers, desperately and angrily spiralling up in the air. Its tail wagging and its eyes fixed on the bird, the cat merely sat down by the perch with a patient look on its face.
“Bonnie!”, the girl called strictly, but the cat didn’t seem to hear her. Arlo turned his focus back on the girl.
“What’s your name, then?”, he asked.
“Erica”, was the answer. “And that’s Bonnie”. She pointed at her furry friend, who now had laid down with paws stretched out and eyes closed, all the while being eyed suspiciously by the raven. Apollo now seemed to remember that Erica had come looking for him.
“You wanted to see me, Erica?”. Suddenly the girl seemed shy. With a sideways glance at Arlo, she motioned for Apollo to come closer, upon which he bent down, and Erica whispered something in his ear. His answer was just a solemn nod, before he turned to Arlo.
“If you’ll excuse me, I need to attend to something”, he smiled apologetically. “Please make yourself comfortable while I’m gone”. Then Erica and Apollo went up the stairs, and Arlo was left to wonder what he should do. Finally, he sat down in the armchair, which proved to be as comfortable as it had looked. Exhausted from the last days’ journey, he soon drifted off to sleep.
Slowly returning to the conscious world, but still half inside his dreams, Arlo found himself in a sort of limbo, not being able to remember where he was, why he was there or who he had met that same day. Therefore, when he found himself lying in a strange bed in a strange, however pleasant and homey room, he didn’t know what to think or how to react, and he lied very still just gazing around the room, trying to regain his memory. Only a few seconds later he remembered. Quickly, he got up and dressed, before he went through a long hallway, past many rooms which he guessed were other bedrooms, down the stairs, and into the same living room where he had been earlier that day. The room was empty and silent. One look out the window told him that he had slept over the daylight, as the evening sun now shone into the room. Then, a door opened to his left, and Apollo strode out and smiled at Arlo.
“Hello Arlo, did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you”
“Good. I’m headed for the dining room; dinner is being served. Will you join me? You must be hungry”
“I am”, Arlo smiled, thankful. Apollo nodded and gestured for the boy to follow him.
Out in the hallway again, Apollo stopped in front of the other door, looked at Arlo for a second, then opened up into a large room, furnished with five long tables. Each of them was decorated with a festive white table cloth, four small flower pots with colourful flower bouquets and three long candles that were the only sources of light in the room. Of these five tables there were two on each side of the fifth that pointed in the opposite direction than the rest and towards the door, where Arlo stood looking at it with hungry eyes and a growling stomach. Because on that table were half a dozen metal containers, containing something that gave off a delicious smell. Ten identical chairs surrounded each of the other four tables, and on eight of those forty, all around the same table, children of different ages sat speaking and laughing. Two of them looked scarily similar. They all looked up as the two of them came into the room, waiting patiently for Apollo to speak. He wasted no time: he gestured over the table with both arms and said:
“Please, eat”. And just like that, all the children walked, or ran, to stand in front of Apollo and Arlo, starting at the close end of the table and working their way down. They grabbed trays from a rack, then they put plates and cutlery on it, before they started filling up their plates with what was in each of the containers. Finally, they got to the far end of the table, where they got themselves glasses and filled them with water from a dispenser. Then they sat back down around their own table again. Now Apollo gestured for Arlo to help himself. Gladly, he did as he was requested, moving half as fast as the other children, just to look at the food in each container for a few seconds before he took any of it. In the first container was potatoes, in the second a mixture of fried vegetables, in the third salad, in the fourth steak, and in the last was some kind of spicy sauce. It all looked even more delicious than it had smelled, and when he sat down by the table next to where the children sat and tried the food, it tasted better still. Just as he was about to take another bite, someone tugged on his sleeve. Looking behind him, he saw that Erica looked up at him with big eyes.
“Don’t you wanna sit with us?”
“Sure I do”. Now she smiled happily.
«Come on then! You can sit next to Lucy!». Arlo picked up his plate and glass and headed over to the other table with Erica. A slender, blonde girl at his age smiled at him and patted on the chair next to her. He smiled back and sat down, and again he put the fork to his lips, and again he was interrupted.
“How do you like it here?”, Lucy asked.
“Not sure yet”
“How long are you staying?”
“Not long», he answered, a bit too sharp. He was getting annoyed, and hungrier by the second.
“Oh”. Lucy didn’t say more than that, she just went back to eating. Apollo, who had seated himself next to Arlo, smiled reassuringly at the girl, something Arlo pretended not to notice. Just like he pretended not to notice the curious looks the couple of what had to be twins gave him.
When everyone had finished eating, all the other children went in to the living room, and Apollo signalled for Arlo to follow him into the room he had gotten out of before dinner. The room looked like a study, with book cases, a writing desk pointed inwards, an office chair, two armchairs, and another perch for the raven. There was even a guitar hanging on the wall by the window. Apollo went to the other side of the writing desk and sat down in the office chair, before nodding towards the armchairs.
“Please, sit down”. And when Arlo had done so, he continued, “I know you must be wondering why you’re here”.
“It has crossed my mind, yes. I feel like I’ve seen you before, but I can’t remember when”. Apollo smiled.
“You have seen me many times Arlo, ever since you came to the Everys. I have been watching over you”.
“Oh. Well, that’s not creepy at all”. A cheerful laughter came from the mysterious man, but Arlo didn’t smile. He had just realized something. “You gave me the nightmare, didn’t you?”. Now Apollo grew silent and solemn, looking gravely at the boy sitting in front of him. Finally, he nodded.
“I had to make you remember».
«As if I ever forgot».
«I’m sorry for the pain I caused you, but it seems to me that you got my message. You’re here”.
“Yes, but why? What can I do? I’m human now, and even if I could change back I have no idea how to undo what they did!”.
“I’m not asking you to undo anything, and I will help you in every way I can, but you have to help your people. No one else can”. The room grew silent. Arlo was studying his hands, trying to remember what it felt like to have swimming skin between his fingers and shooting through the water in top speed. It was so long ago. And then everything went wrong. He could feel tears landing on his hands, and angrily he raised them and wiped his eyes. Apollo looked at him like he knew exactly what was going through his head.
“Arlo…”, he began, but was interrupted abruptly.
“When will we start then?”
“Not today. And not tomorrow”.
“I know, but no good will come of you heading out now. You need rest, and to know where you’re going and what to do”.
“Then tell me!”, Arlo suddenly shouted as he raised from his seat. He had lost his patience. But Apollo simply leaned back in his chair, looked up at him and smiled a sad smile. They remained like that for several seconds, while Arlo tried to regain control of his feelings, and then he sat back down. At once, Apollo started talking, like nothing had happened.
“Tonight you must relax and try not to think about the way ahead, and we will do our best to make you feel welcome. Tomorrow you and I will talk again, and I will tell you everything you need to know. Can we agree on that?”. Arlo wanted to say no. He wanted to talk now, he didn’t want to talk to the other children, and he did not want to stay here a whole day more, but he couldn’t see what other choice he had. Finally, he nodded and said meekly:
“Good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some important business to attend to”. Arlo got up of his chair, opened the door and stepped out into the living room. As he closed the door behind him, he got a glimpse of Apollo rising and getting his guitar down from the wall.
Five pairs of eyes looked at him as he got out in the living room. Seven if you counted the cat and the raven. Slightly unsure as to whether he should say or do anything, Arlo stopped and looked back at all of them in turn. In the end, he just sat down in the armchair and started stroking the raven’s feathers, until Erica’s spoke.
“He likes you”. He looked up at the girl, then back to the raven, and back again.
“Yeah, almost no one gets to touch him. Except Apollo”.
“I guess I’m just lucky”. She smiled.
“Or you’re just easy to like”, Lucy interjected from the other end of the couch. Arlo looked at her piercing eyes and shy smile, puzzled. He couldn’t come up with an answer for her, so the two of them just stared awkwardly at each other until she looked down, and he turned his concentration back to the raven.
“Does he have a name?”, he asked everyone and no one.
“His name is Storm”, came a voice from right behind him, which made Arlo jump in his chair, and he looked up in Apollo’s smiling face. How had the man managed to open and close the door and walk up that close to him, all without making a sound? The others hadn’t even batted an eye or looked in the man’s direction. In his head, Arlo got an image of Apollo sneaking up behind him, putting a finger to his lips to tell the other children to pretend like nothing was happening. This thought made him look more closely at their faces, and he thought he could see a little smile on their lips, like they tried not to laugh. Silently contemplating this, he turned back to Apollo.
“Oh. Nice name”.
“Isn’t it?”. Apollo looked lovingly at the raven and met its eyes. They remained like that for several seconds, Storm bobbing his head a few times as if they were in the middle of a deep conversation, before Apollo broke it off and asked Arlo:
“Would you mind moving over to the couch? I am very fond of that chair”.
“Sure”. He got to his feet and sat down in the couch where Erica, Lucy, and another girl at seven or eight sat. The twin sisters he had noticed earlier sat in a smaller couch turned halfway away from this one, while the remaining two children, two little boys from what Arlo could remember, had seemingly gone to bed. Apollo had now seated himself in the chair with the guitar Arlo had seen in his study. The others had fallen silent, looking expectantly at it and him. Soon, soft tones dribbled out of the guitar, and Apollo started to sing. Arlo knew he had heard this man sing before, even quite recently, and he thought he knew when. However, the soft, yet powerful voice drew him back to the now, and he listened to the song. It was a strange song, filled with incomprehensible metaphors and places he had never heard of, and yet it was cheerful and made him want to hear more. When finished, Apollo received the other children’s applause with a small grin and a nod. Arlo couldn’t make himself applaud, it felt strange somehow. Now Apollo looked questioningly at Erica and the other little girl.
“Erica, Amy, if you would?”. The two girls blushed, but hopped down off the couch. While Erica placed herself right next to Apollo, Amy opened a low cabinet, pulled out an instrument case and opened it to reveal a violin. By the time she came over to the two waiting for her, she had started checking if it was properly tuned. She got a little help from Apollo, who gave her a few notes from his guitar. Soon, she nodded and put the violin to her shoulder. Apollo started playing with Erica’s eyes fixed on him, until he gave her a look, and then she started singing. She had an untrained, childish voice, and she haltered on the words here and there, yet it sounded sweet and dreamy, like she really believed what she was singing. After a while, Amy joined in with her violin. No complicated melodies, and she closed her eyes in concentration, but she too had obvious talent. As Apollo played the song to a finish, the girls looked both shy, excited, happy, and scared all at once. This time Arlo joined the applause.
“Well, girls, take a bow”, Apollo said cheerfully, and they took each other’s hands and bowed deeply, before running back to the couch.
“Lucy?”, Apollo started in a welcoming voice, but she shook her head. However, Arlo could see an instant regret in her eyes, and clearly Apollo could too, because he tried again:
“Are you sure? We are all your friends here”. Slowly, Lucy nodded and started to rise, but before getting up, she gave Arlo a nervous look. He tried to smile encouragingly, but he wasn’t sure how it turned out. Still, she suddenly seemed more confident, and she strode over to Apollo. When he asked her which song she wanted to sing, she answered at once, and after a hasty look at Arlo, she nodded to Apollo. He started playing and singing, and she answered him in a high voice that was not beautiful, but strong, soft, and pleasant. It was a love duo, and although it was strange for those two to sing a song like that, it didn’t really matter. Their voices fitted well together, and anyway, she seemed to look more at Arlo than Apollo, singing the words with an automated security. Her looks made Arlo feel uncomfortable, but he was not about to let it show. He smiled back at her, listened to her song, and applauded politely when it was done. She curtsied and smiled brightly, then sat down, a little closer to him than he would like.
“Now”, said Apollo, “I think it’s time for the two of you to go to bed”. The last part was aimed at Erica and Amy, and they sighed in protest, but didn’t come with any objections. After getting a hug from every other person in the room, they looked questioningly at Arlo. He shrugged and motioned for them to hug him, and they did so with a happy grin. Slowly, they moved out of the living room, then Arlo could hear them whispering and giggling out in the hall and up the stairs, until their voices faded away. The room was silent for a while, and once again Arlo felt all eyes on him. Then Apollo moved his gaze to the twins and said,
“Why don’t you introduce yourselves?”. They looked down, suddenly shy, but exchanged looks quickly and smiled at him, trying to appear confident.
“I’m Rosie”, the twin closest to him said, and as she pointed at her sister, the other one said,
“And I’m Olivia”.
“Arlo”. The three nodded at each other. And that night, Arlo felt at peace again, able to forget his worries for at least a few hours, talking with the three girls and the man out there in the woods. This place, these people, all of this, was still a mystery to him, but he had no intention of prying in any back stories right now, and apparently they had the same thought. The night went by with casual small talk, occasional childhood stories and some additional music. Apollo rarely said anything at all, mostly he just sat observing the children sitting in his living room, smiling a little smile to himself, from time to time putting in a word or two where he saw fit.
In the end, he reminded them that it was getting late, and still talking, although in hushed voices, they moved up the stairs and to their respective bedrooms. Rosie and Olivia lived quite near the stair case, and after they’d said good night and locked their doors, Lucy walked on with Arlo. Stopping outside his room and grabbing the door knob, Arlo tried to say good night, but just as the words started slipping out of his mouth, she blocked the sound by kissing him. Shocked, Arlo just stood there for a second, before he forcibly shoved her away. The two of them stood in complete silence, staring at each other, Lucy shameful, Arlo confused. Then, without a word, she turned around and started walking to her room, trying to appear calm. He opened his door and got inside in a hurry, almost slamming it shut behind him and leaning against it while trying to comprehend what had just happened.