The world is big.
This is something Barclay learned at ten years old, the first time he saw the gate.
It’s always the gate in his memory, even though there are several gates that lead in and out of Sylvain—even though, by now, Barclay has seen most of them and guarded a few. The first one he ever saw was the one that appeared in the Crystalline Fields near his hometown of Myrden. It’s the one he still thinks about.
He was walking home from school, alone, when he saw it. Alone was how he spent most of his childhood. Barclay was what the Sylphs called a fract. A part-Sylph. He never met his father, so he never knew what his other parts were. Other than a nuisance, an unending streak of bad luck. Sometimes his form changed, and there were blessed stretches of time where he could pass as a Sylph, as just another face in the crowd. But much of the time, his brown skin was clearly visible through the mere mottling of hair on his face and arms. His teeth were square and useless, his face flat and his eyes too close together. A true fract. Ill-shaped, he was called, a changeling. Some of the children at school simply called him creepy, which Barclay preferred. By a young age, he’d learned to appreciate folks who didn’t mince words. It made sussing out enemies easier.
He’d asked his mother just once. “What am I?” She responded with a glare and a grunt. “You’re a Sylph, obviously. Finish your dinner.” Whatever Barclay was, the message was clear: it was secret. It was unspeakable. It might not even have a name.
The gate, on the day that Barclay first saw it, shone like a beacon, protruding out of the otherwise flat, boring grassland between school and home. It was a simple structure—nothing more than three long rocks stacked on top of each other, really—but it glowed bright blue from within. It looked both brand new and ancient, and it made Barclay feel slightly queasy.
Yet he was drawn toward it. Whether due to childlike curiosity or something larger, Barclay approached the gate. He shielded his eyes as he got closer, against the bright light. Once he was a few feet away, the light flickered, then dimmed, and Barclay could see through it. For the first time in his life, he saw humans. They were mostly hairless, and small, and their bodies looked weak. But they looked like he did when his hair receded and his body shrank, when the jeers and taunts were loudest. He didn’t know the name of these creatures yet. He didn’t know anything about this portal, or where it would eventually lead him. Scared, he rushed home to tell his mother.
And his mother panicked. She called the city council, the Sylvain militia. She told them about the gate, about what Barclay had seen. At his description of the hairless, bipedal people walking around inside, it was determined that the gate was indescribably dangerous. Indescribably was the word that kept being thrown around. Guards were assigned to the Crystalline Fields, to be posted at the gate’s entrance every hour of the day.
“You’re never to go near that gate again,” his mother told him.
The world can be changed.
Barclay learned this at fifteen years old, when he barreled head-first through the gate.
When questioned later, he would say it had been impulsive. Something he hadn’t thought about doing until he did it. That was partially true, of course—it requires a certain amount of thoughtlessness to jump into the unknown. But it had also been something he’d thought about for years. The glowing gate. The people, who looked slightly more like him than Sylphs did.
On the other side, he found himself alone on a grassy hill. He had definitely seen people walking up and down this hill before, but on this day, it was empty. Storm clouds swirled overhead. A few raindrops pricked his face, and he looked up at the ominous sky. And he smiled.
But before he could move an inch, rough hands grabbed him from behind and dragged him back to Sylvain. The guard slammed him to the ground. He tasted dirt in his mouth, and something metallic.
What were you thinking. Barclay was asked this over and over. By his mother. By his neighbors, by the kids at school. By the authorities, by Vincent. Finally, he just started saying, “I wasn’t thinking. I just did it. I don’t know why.”
The world isn’t big enough.
Barclay learned that at seventeen years old, when he ran away for the first time. He would spend the better part of the next six years running, but of course, he didn’t know that yet.
His mother’s attitude of you don’t like it, you can leave, with Sylvain’s mentality of you leave, you never come back turned out to be a killer combination. He launched himself through the gate again, and this time, no one stopped him. No one pulled him back. He’d been warned more than once over the years: you cross over again, that’s it. You’re gone.
So they let him go.
Outside Sylvain, he started dying immediately. And the people back in Sylvain—his kin, the only ones in either world who were supposed to care—knew that banishment meant death, and they banished him anyway. Barclay figured there was some kind of metaphor in all of this. Something like: home is where the heart is. Or maybe: you can take the big hairy monster out of Sylvain but you can never take Sylvain out of the big hairy monster. Regardless, he was on his own in the human realm for two months before he had to go crawling back—damn near literally—through the gate he’d run out of. Just for a breather. Just to save his hide.
They kicked him out again, of course. He got an official statement from Vincent that if he ever returned, he’d be sentenced to death. And so he did the only thing a person denied their personhood can do: he ran. He sneaked around, traveling from place to place, never staying anywhere long. He started keeping track of the gates back to Sylvain. He ducked through them as he was able, just to survive. Just to keep air in his lungs.
And he was spotted over and over again by humans who, for the most part, were well-meaning in their curiosity. He was recorded, photographed, gossiped about and occasionally, even followed. He drew a lot of unfortunate attention on himself, robbing liquor stores and a couple banks just to keep himself going. (Banks for the money and liquor stores for—well, what else? Courage.) He kept to the forests when he could, where he blended in a bit better. He fell down a lot, but usually got back up.
Until the time he doesn’t.
The world is big again.
That’s what Barclay learns when he wakes up and doesn’t know where he is. Slowly, like coming out of a bad dream, he realizes he’s floating in hot, steaming water. Frightened by this, he flails, limbs jerking suddenly, and he accidentally sucks in a mouthful of water. He starts hacking and wheezing as he sits up, feet slipping on the stones underneath him, trying to get his bearings.
He’s in some kind of hot spring, outside, and it’s nighttime. The sky overhead is clear and full of stars. He’s been stripped down to his underwear. Holding onto the edge of the spring, he desperately tries to remember what happened to him. He had been in the woods, he knows that. Stumbling. Half drunk, half dead from this world. He remembers deciding to lie down for a little while, and everything fading to black.
“You’ve gotten yourself into a real mess, haven’t you?” a voice says. Barclay looks over his shoulder to see a woman sitting cross-legged on the other side of the spring. She’s wearing a duster jacket, but aside from that, it’s too dark to see much. She chuckles a little at the wide-eyed expression on his face. “Well, come closer. I don’t bite,” she says.
Slowly, Barclay inches closer, but only because he trusts that in his Sylph form, he can overtake her. The woman has dusky brown skin, a smattering of golden freckles like sand across the bridges of her nose. Her hair is long, dark, and tangled in a thick braid down her back. She’s still smiling, and despite the confusing circumstances he finds himself in, Barclay feels more at ease.
Suddenly, another realization hits him: he feels better physically than he has in years. He’s never felt this good, not on this side of the gate. He moves his arms from side to side and marvels at the way his body doesn’t hurt.
“Uh,” Barclay says, turning his attention back to the woman. “Who are you?”
“I’m Mama. Pleasure’s mine, Bigfoot.” She sticks out her hand to shake his.
“That’s not my name,” he says flatly.
“Might as well be,” the woman, Mama, says. She adjusts herself, uncrossing her legs to dip her bare feet in the water. “You know what they say. You claim an identity by how you live, not by what you call yourself.”
“I…I don’t think anyone has ever said that, actually,” Barclay says, and Mama just shrugs. “So, uh...” he adds after a moment's silence. “Where am I?”
“You’re in Kepler, West Virginia. Specifically, a place called Amnesty Lodge.” Mama gestures toward a large building in the distance, its many windows illuminating warm, golden light. “And it’s a good thing, too,” she continues. “You almost died. Knocking on death’s door when we finally found you.” This is said casually, as if she’s talking about the weather. “But you’ll be alright here. Just breathe deep.”
Barclay does, and feels even better. So he keeps breathing.
“You know what I love most about Kepler?” Mama says. “Well, all of West Virginia, really. The air. It’s got good air, and maybe some folks would think it’s weird, loving a place’s air most of all. I got a feeling you know what I mean, though.” She smiles. “It’s got good people, too. Solid people doing their best. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Bigfoot. You, doing your best from now on. Hey, what’s your real name, anyway?”
“Barclay, huh? Well, it sure is nice to meet you, Barclay.”
He sits up straighter in the water. “What do you want with me, exactly?”
Mama chuckles. “I got an offer for you,” she says. “I want you to join my team.”
Barclay hesitates. Mama seems nice, a solid person like she said. But he isn’t sure if he can completely trust her. Not with what he’s learned about humankind since leaving Sylvain. “I’m not…from around here,” Barclay says slowly.
“I know where you’re from.” Mama’s voice is confident, assured.
Barclay peers at her closely. “You’re not a Sylph,” he said, though he isn’t quite sure.
“No, I’m not. Guess you could say, I’ve got the interests of a Sylph.”
He doesn’t know what this means, so he ignores it for now. “If you know about Sylvain, you might know that I can’t stay anywhere long,” he says. “Anywhere that’s not Sylvain, I mean. So I don’t know if I can help you.”
Mama kicks a foot through the water, making ripples. “Well, see, we got some of Sylvain’s magic in this here water. How do you think the others stay so lively and jubilant?”
“Listen, Barclay,” she goes on. “I can’t promise you a comfortable life. Then again, you probably gave up on a comfortable life a long time ago, huh? Fact of the matter is, I can only really promise you a whole mess of danger and trouble. But what I’m guaranteeing you, right here and now, is a chance. A chance to do something good with this life you got. A chance to do something for others.”
“Yeah? And why should I care about that?” Barclay asks darkly.
“You shouldn’t. But you do anyway.” Mama smiles at him.
“Look,” Barclay replies. “I’ve tried to help people before. All I’ve ever gotten for it is grief.” Barclay scowls down at his hands. His flawed hands that, even at their most bestial, were never quite good enough. His whole life, his best has never been enough. He glances toward the building in the distance, already thinking about an escape. Maybe, if what Mama says about this spring is true, he can sneak back sometimes. Maybe this forest is big enough that she won’t find him again.
Mama leans forward. “Yeah?” she asks. “And what has choosing this life gotten you, huh? Less grief?” She asks the questions like she already knows the answers.
“You don’t know anything about me,” Barclay says angrily.
“No. I don’t. I know something, though.” She leans back again, resting on her palms. “I know Kepler. I know Amnesty Lodge. I know what I’m doing here matters, makes a difference in folks’ lives. What I’m doing made a difference in your life, friend.”
Barclay looks away, feeling awkward. “Yeah, uh…thanks. For that.”
Mama shakes her head. “That’s not what I’m getting at, Barclay. I don’t need thanks. What I need is help. And what you need is something I got, believe it or not. The sooner you understand that you need people, Barclay—that you need them and they need you, and that it’s okay, that it’s good, even…well, the sooner you get to really living your life. Seeing this world for what it really is. See, it’s hard and painful and sometimes folks just fall over in the woods and die. That’s true. But it’s also worth something.” She pauses to look back at the lodge, a small smile playing across her face. “Amnesty Lodge can show you that. The people you meet here and the folks you protect by doing the work we do—they can show you, too.”
Mama reaches into the pocket of her jeans, pulls something out and hands it to him. It’s a small hemp bracelet, warm and, strangely, feels familiar in his palm. “That’s your ticket,” she says, “your ticket to belonging. To having a family that’ll accept you and protect you and fight beside you. To finally being somebody in this world.” She leans back. “All I can do is offer you the ticket, Barclay. You gotta step on the train yourself.”
Barclay holds the bracelet, looking at it without a word. He glances up at the sky above, the steam that rises off the hot spring and distorts the shape of the moon. He hears an owl hooting in the distance, watches as the starlight above blinks with the passing-by of fluttering bats. He thinks of the gate that loomed out of the field of his hometown one day like an omen. He thinks of his mother, jaw set and silent against every question whose answer meant anything to him. And he thinks of his life now. The running, the hiding. The sneaking back to a place that rejected him, just for a chance to live one more day.
“Okay,” he says, after a long moment. “I’m in.” And he ties the bracelet around his wrist.
His body shifts immediately, shrinking into what he has come to think of as his human form, but this time, in a way that feels controlled. Managed. He looks at the bracelet around his wrist, then up at Mama.
Mama grins. “Good,” she says. “Welcome home.” And she reaches out a hand to pull him out of the water, toward the warm light of Amnesty Lodge.