That morning, he woke me with food he had brought from his own world – crispy, fatty bacon and chicken eggs, served with black, strong coffee. I could tell from the resoluteness on his face that he had made up his mind, but I was too scared to ask him what he had decided.
Nathan had cleared away our plates and was covering the fire with dirt when he told me.
“I have decided to stay,” he said, “and see what happens when I turn 16. Who knows – I might be booted out once I come of age…”
He seemed solemn in his decision. Not wanting to seem too childish, I held back my happiness and nodded, allowing a small smile to dance on my lips.
“My parents will wonder where I’ve gone, of course…” He trailed off.
“Do you want to visit them beforehand?”
He shook his head. “It’ll only make things more difficult.” He said.
We occupied ourselves until 10pm, but then I could not concentrate on anything. Instead, we sat and waited for midnight to strike.
And it did.
I looked over at Nathan, who looked back at me. The church clock chimed twelve times and then stopped. We waited a minute. Two. Ten. Nothing happened. We both broke into a smile at once and I said what I had wanted to say since midnight had struck: “Happy birthday, Nathan.” He grinned – laughed.
We curled up together in an empty hay-filled stable next to the dragons and fell asleep soon after.
I awoke to my mother shouting my name: “Aria! Aria!” It was so persistent that I couldn’t ignore it even if I had wanted to. I moved Nathan’s arm, which had been strewn haphazardly across my chest, and padded across the stables, coming out into the blinding light of day.
“Your friend, Aria – Nathan – where is he?”
“What’s going on, Mum?”
“I heard from the Gimalean boy that he had heard a child was missing in the other world. A 16 year old child. Who fit Nathan’s description.” She studied my face, accusation not yet present on her face.
“He’s here to stay, Mamma, and he’ll help out as he always does and we’ll move out soon, don’t worry.” My words came out jumbled; all in a rush.
“Aria…” She looked stricken – scared, almost. “Aria… there will be fallout from this…”
“We would have never seen each other again, Mum.”
“Think of his parents… if something like this had happened to you…” She trailed off.
“But he can’t go through now anyway. We checked. He can’t even see the Doorway now.”
My mum sighed. She seemed far older than her years. “I guess there’s nothing we can do but wait,” she said, “bring him in for breakfast when he’s ready.” With that, she headed back into the house.
It was a few days later when I realised what I had done. Tom – a seven year old from the other world – was with us as we watched for the dragon in the lake. But he spent most of his time squinting at Nathan. When Nathan finally snapped at him, Tom produced a newspaper from his backpack with Nathan’s face on the front page.
“I knew I knew your face from somewhere.” Tom said. Nathan grabbed the newspaper and read the story, his eyes darting from side to side. With shaking hands, he put the paper down on the grass and walked away to the other side of the lake, muttering that he needed time to think.
I went back home and watched out for him, but he did not return until the early hours of the morning. He headed straight for the stables.
Before long, a town meeting was called. Mayor Kan said that, owing to the panic felt on the other side over the missing boy, they were thinking of closing the Doorway for good.
I zoned out after that, only catching phrases like “disputes with figureheads on the other side” and “risk assessment”. Though I squeezed Nathan’s hand and was grateful he was here, I realised how foolish we had been.
We grew older together and eventually committed ourselves to one another, but I could sense Nathan resented me a little. In fact, a lot of people seemed to resent me. I had not known how much Arkansa depended on the children and the other world, but before long, our town became run-down. Sure, the magic was still there, but it had lost some of its wealth and – more importantly – some of its life.
Though we stuck together for forty years, I fear we only stayed together out of obligation; if we had broken up, everything would have been for nothing.