"Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix." --Christina Baldwin
In the weak, foggy moonlight filtering through cracks in the roof, a small grey creature crouched over a pile of gravel and wondered what to do.
He was small for his age, small and built like a willow sapling and not a muscle worth remark; it was the one in his head, Leader had often snarled, that he used too much.
"If you used your claws half as much as your fool brain," Leader would admonish, "you'd have meat in your belly and you wouldn't be such a burden! Just look at Elder, would you? You want her to starve?"
Little One, as he'd been tagged, growled now, remembering the oft-repeated scoldings. Elder had been the only one with a kind word for him, when she was herself. Sister and Big Brother largely ignored him, but then, Big Brother seemed to lack the wit to bestir himself for anything but food, and Sister was too busy haranguing Leader for some affront, real or imagined.
Little One sighed, prodding the chunky, gritty remains of Elder with a tentative claw. Ironically, she'd been the last to leave him. First, Big Brother had snapped his neck going over a steep cliff after an equally dim deer. Weeks later, Sister went out alone after an argument with Leader and stumbled across some human hunters camping in the woods.
She had returned with gunshot wounds, half bled-out, weeping, and fell into Leader's arms begging him for forgiveness. She was gone before the sun rose, and before making peace with Leader.
Leader lost all heart after that, blaming himself and his stubbornness for the cost of his mate's life. Not that his change in demeanor made him any more charitable towards Little One, but orders to go hunting for food came less and less often, and one morning Leader went gliding at dawn.
Too young, too hungry and too unloved to really mourn for Leader, Little One did his best to look after Elder. She alternated praising him for his meager kills, asking him who he was, and demanding to know where her long-dead mate was. Finally, one evening, Little One awoke alone. Elder had passed peacefully in her sleep, and the frustrated young gargoyle shifted restlessly, completely at a loss.
Some stray notion told him he should first bury Elder's remains. But no such ritual had been given to Big Brother or Sister; their crumbled corpses were scattered in the underbrush with no ceremony to speak of. And there was no telling where the fragments of Leader's shattered body lay. Little One rose to his feet and wandered randomly about the abandoned and vine-overgrown shed that had served as the tiny clan's home.
He felt he should do something for her at least. Elder had always been kind to him, even when she couldn't remember who he was. At length he settled for pushing her remains into the shallow fire-pit and covering it with her tattered cloak.
And then he was back to wondering what to do.
There was no food. Game was scarcer than ever with the nearby human town creeping steadily out into the clan's wilderness. Little One had never been there, but he'd heard Leader complain about it enough. Perhaps he should go there.
At this, Little One wavered. Humans, he'd been told, were mean-spirited, violent and greedy creatures, outstripped in breeding ability only by rabbits. Avoid them and anything to do with them. There was no such thing as a friendly human.
Though he was wise enough not to say so out loud, Little One somehow doubted it.
And there was nothing to keep him here. No Leader to growl veiled threats or cuff him in the head for using it. No Elder's wings to curl up in during storms. And the shed itself could only laughably be called shelter. A few more good thunderstorms and it would flatten out of sheer self-loathing.
Little One made a token effort at looking around for things to take. There wasn't anything of practical value to a tiny young gargoyle barely able to glide. He was dawdling more than anything else. For all his unchildlike blunt logic, he was very childishly scared. He was truly alone. He'd never ventured far from the shed, let alone seen any humans. They could very well be the monsters Leader had described.
If I stay here, I will die. And for what? he thought, suddenly indignant. To prove Leader right, that I'm scrawny and useless? He's wrong. About me, and about humans.
I know it.
A few hours before dawn, Little One wandered into town. It was eerily quiet, and he had to remind himself that it was because humans slept at night. That would make it a little harder to find a friendly one, but at least he was here now. Finding something to eat was a little higher on his list anyway.
Or it was, until he started really looking around.
It was everywhere— scrawlings, lines of shapes, on signs, street corner posts, banners on buildings, even on the trash on the sidewalk. It seized his attention. This was important, something seemed to tell him.
Little One pinned down a windblown piece of paper with his tail and picked it up, staring at the symbols thoughtfully. After a moment of incomprehension, he slowly turned it around. Something nipped at the edges of his mind.
GRAND OPENING Come to the newest nightclub, Door In The Wall
Little One frowned. It was writing. It didn't make any sense to him, but he had no doubt of what it was. Confused, he dropped the paper and looked up at the nearest building's hand-painted sign. DISMUKE'S CONSIGNMENT SHOP it declared. He peered into the front window and saw racks of hanging clothing and shelves piled with strange human devices, but nothing offered any further enlightenment. With a sigh, he turned away and continued his aimless trek further into the town.
Little One scanned each sign and bit of writing he came across, hoping something would make sense or fall into place, and getting progressively more perplexed. An ache for understanding slowly overshadowed the ache for food, and he lost all sense of time. He was staring up at a sign with a stern-looking NO PARKING AFTER 10 PM emblazoned on it when he noticed the sky behind it looked rather bright. Maybe Leader was right about me thinking too much, he thought, quickly reining in his panic. Tonight, he told himself, he would find something to eat instead of gawking like an idiot at all this human nonsense.
He raced off to look for a place to spend the day.
A fat orange cat glared challengingly at Nolee Carroll from underneath the porch steps as she got out of her car. She glared right back, in no mood to take guff from the hairball that belonged to her next-door neighbor. Slinging her tote bag over one shoulder, she took a warning step towards the cat. It got the message, only grudgingly sauntering off... and into her open basement window.
Nolee groaned. At least she knew the cat was fixed; the last thing she wanted to deal with around here was a litter of kittens. She went inside, dumped her bag on the kitchen table, and marched down into the basement.
"Here, kitty kitty," she cooed in singsong tones. "Come to auntie Nolee before her allergies remember they exist..."
She peered over and around waist-deep cardboard box piles and shelves. Only half of this stuff was hers. The rest had been left behind by the previous tenant, but at three months Nolee figured it was hers by default. She still had yet to go though it all, let alone unpack what she'd actually brought with her. Her schedule was murder.
She went to the window at the other end of the room, standing on tiptoe to tilt it closed. How had it gotten open, anyway? It locked from the inside... ah-ha, she thought, feeling the metal latch with her fingers. It was bent, enough to let the narrow ground-level window swing inward.
"Ju-u-ust great," she murmured. Maybe she could hammer the latch back into shape, but that was a project that would have to wait. First, the cat. She turned, took a step, and nearly killed herself tripping over something on the floor.
Stumbling back, grabbing at her bruised shin, she let out a curse and looked down.
Funny. She couldn't recall there being a boulder down here.
No, not some shapeless rock. She bent down. It was the oddest piece of sculpture she had ever seen.
The small childlike figure sat knees-to-chin, hunched up with its arms crossed around its legs. A pair of small scalloped wings tented the figure, framing an almost toddler-like face. Its solemn expression was marred only by the fact that its mouth was half-smooshed against a knee.
"Whoa," she breathed, running her fingers down the curve of a shell-thin wing. It was actually kind of cute, in a weird Notre Dame kind of way. The artist had put in an incredible amount of detail— little pointed ears, a pair of nubby horns poking out through tousled hair, even the forked tail draped over its clawed toes. Too sweet-faced to be some gothic gate guardian, too pointy to be cherubic garden statuary... if the sculptor had been going for this kind of confusing charm, they'd nailed it.
Nolee wondered what to do with it. It certainly wouldn't fit the neighborhood décor, so putting it on the front porch was out. It looked a little too real... as if it would suddenly blink its eyes and look right at her—
A flash of orange fur sprang up inches from her face. She yelped and jumped back, quickly feeling foolish.
"Dumb cat!" she scolded, calming her hammering heart. The cat sat down on the statue's head, completely unconcerned by her startled reaction, and made an imperious "mrrf!" noise.
"You should know by now I'm not going to feed you," Nolee retorted. She picked up the cat and went back upstairs, not at all looking forward to the sneeze fits soon to visit. "Come on, you. Got better things to worry about than cat dander and some funky statue."
In the dim shaft of street-light that streamed in through the tiny window, a small grey creature crouched on a cardboard box and wondered what to do.
Little One hoped no one had discovered him overday. At least it seemed the human or humans who lived here hadn't noticed his presence, or didn't realise what he was if they had.
He couldn't go back outside. He'd climbed up the stonelike wall to peer outside, only to see the house across the road teeming with activity. People came and went, talking and laughing loudly. Some sort of music throbbed from within the house, and at one point a black-and-white vehicle had come by; its presence seemed to calm the ruckus down, but only for a few minutes.
If he left his cellar hiding place now, he was sure to be seen. Among all those humans one or two were bound to be friendly, but Little One didn't feel comfortable trusting his fate to such a random hope. Besides, there were a couple of them in the bushes nearby who looked as if they were either fighting or mating-- it was hard to tell which-- and he felt it wise not to disturb either activity. Leader and Sister had always taken great exception to such interruptions.
Little One had his stomach to worry about at the moment anyway. He crept up the stairs and put his ear to the door. The only noises were from the goings-on across the street and after a few moments of silence from within the house, he eased the door open.
It was dark, save for a single lamp that burned near a window. Little One ventured out onto plush carpeting in a room that bespoke of a comfort he had never imagined. Colorful blankets draped a large, thickly padded chair, and along the wall was the chair's sibling, longer and strewn with fat cushions. A box-like device sat on a wooden stand, and on it were piled a pair of other devices and many small silvery discs.
He wanted to poke and examine everything, but experience kept his claws at his side. Curiosity had never gotten him anything but a swat across the backside from Leader's or Sister's tail. Even though neither were here, he didn't have time for such foolishness; the humans might return at any moment.
Little One turned his attention to the next room. Its floor was paved in smooth, shiny stone squares. A small table sat in one corner with a pair of chairs, and a long shelf ran the length of the opposite wall, with many small doors above and below it. A giant white box hummed busily at one end of the shelf.
Best of all, he smelled food.
He clambered up onto the shelf and headed straight for a large bowl of fruit, first devouring an apple, seeds, stem and all. An orange nearly thwarted him, until he remembered it had to be peeled-- Elder had once rescued such a fruit for him from the spoils of a human campsite-- but even then he managed to swallow quite a bit of chewy peel in his rush to consume it. After a distasteful mouthful of a long, curvy yellow fruit, he discovered those required peeling as well; once past the bitter skin, its meat was soft and wonderfully sweet.
Having taken the edge off his hunger, he looked around again. He wanted to take as much as he could carry. Once he got some strength back he could try his luck at hunting small game again. He couldn't see anything that looked like food, at least not in plain sight...
There was something on the table.
Little One, his arms laden with fruit and an apple in his teeth, got down from the shelf, losing an orange from his hoard in the process. He simply dumped the load in a small pile on the floor, and pausing to chew on the apple, he climbed up into a chair to get a closer look at the object on the table.
It was a book.
One of Little One's most prominent memories was of finding a book while out foraging with Big Brother and Sister. They had come across an abandoned car on the side of a dirt road. Sister greedily salvaged one cushioned seat (it had lasted only a few months until it fell apart, not designed to withstand even a small clan of gargoyles) and gave Big Brother and Little One the task of scavenging anything else that might be useful. There wasn't much, some rags, a few rusty tools, and a book, a small thick book with a picture of a swarthy human man and a swooning human woman on its cover.
Little One was kept too busy on the way back to examine the tattered and half-molded book; Big Brother would wander off if not given something to do, and Sister, her arms full of car seat, kept sending Little One after the edible plants she spotted. But it had occupied his thoughts. He dearly wanted to look at it further if he had the opportunity.
"Human trash," Leader had grunted upon seeing the book. "Only one thing it's good for."
And, in-between bored and amiable (for once) bits of conversation with Elder and Sister, Leader had torn the pages out one by one and fed them to the fire. Little One watched the pages brown, crisp and crumble into ash, a nameless unease driving him into the shelter of Elder's wings.
He had wanted to beg Leader to stop burning the book. Its slow demise had haunted his dreams for days after that.
Now, Little One eyed the book on the table, his purloined produce momentarily forgotten. It was big, with a hard cover emblazoned with writings and pictures of strange devices and designs. He gingerly traced a claw over the lettering, and lifted the cover.
The front door rattled and swung open.
"What, are you serious?"
"Oh my god, yes," Nolee groaned into her phone, watching the trespassers walk unsteadily away. "Right there in the bushes. I hate that fraternity."
"Isn't there a dean of frats or something?" Nolee's sister, Tessly, asked. "I'm pretty sure tripping over a threesome in your front yard is grounds for disbanding."
"Calling him first thing in the morning." Nolee switched her celphone to the other ear and put her key into the deadbolt lock. "In the meantime I'm going to consider hooking up the garden hose."
"I miss all the fun."
"Yeah, yeah." Nolee pushed the door open, just in time to see one of the kitchen chairs flop over and a small shape go careening into the living room. "Hey, what the--!"
"What? What is it?" Tessly asked.
"Something got into the house!" Nolee hit the lights. "It's probably that cat again. Basement window won't shut."
"Aw, the cat loves you, big sis!"
"Call you later, Tess. Hug Gram for me." Nolee snapped her phone shut and sighed, walking around the table to right the upended chair. Then she paused.
All the fruit was on the floor. The bowl on the counter was completely empty, surrounded by bits of orange peel, a large pulpy wad of what might have been part of a banana, with the rest of the shredded peel draped over the edge of the counter. Perplexed, she knelt down to pick up the fruit on the floor. If the bowl wasn't overturned, how had it all gotten down here? And since when did cats go after bananas and oranges? She couldn't even picture something as ridiculous as a cat attempting to peel an orange.
She leaned forward to grab a half-eaten apple that had rolled onto the living room carpet. Just as she touched it, a flicker of movement caught her eye. From where she crouched, she could see right behind the couch, into the dark hollow between it and the wall.
A pair of eyes stared back at her, eyes that didn't belong to any cat. Nolee squinted, making out the shape of a little face.
"Are you angry?" asked a voice, so softly that she wasn't certain the face had spoken at all.
"What?" she asked, inching closer on hands and knees. Was it... was it a little kid? How had a kid gotten in the house? "Who are you?"
"The little one." Nolee had to strain to hear. She moved closer, and the intruder scooted further back, its eyes wide and wary.
"Hey, come on outta there," she coaxed. "I'm not gonna hurt you."
The child-shape squirmed and hesitated, moving neither away nor towards.
"C'mon. I don't bite." Nolee grabbed the gnawed-upon apple and held it up. "I'll let you have this if you come out."
A pause. "You are not angry?"
"Promise I'm not. It's okay."
Slowly, it emerged, and Nolee couldn't help but stare speechlessly as it reached its clawed hand out to take the apple. The little creature crouched at the end of the couch to finish the apple off, balancing lightly on the balls of its feet. It was a soft, faded shade of grey, mottled faintly, not the uniform hue of stone, but she instantly recognized the delicate scalloped wings, the thin forked tail. She knew that childlike face.
"You..." Nolee breathed. "You were in the basement."
"Myff," the child-thing mumbled affirmatively around a mouthful of apple, then swallowed. "I had to sleep."
"Sleep?" Nolee shifted, sitting back on her heels. "That's how you sleep?"
Another positive grunt made its way past what was left of the apple. The creature never once took its eyes off her, and Nolee had the impression that it would spring up and run like the dickens if she spoke so much as a cross word.
"Who... what are you?"
Its wings shuffled, a bit like a nervous shrug. "Gargoyle," it replied simply, as if it should have been obvious.
"Gargoyle... like those things in New York?" The news had become alternately depressing and crazy of late, with things that Nolee, too busy with a better-than-full college load and a job, considered too far removed from her life to be too concerned about. The esoteric subject of gargoyles had been relegated to a mental file, somewhere between "the tabloids finally got tired of Elvis, aliens and Bigfoot" and "I'll believe it if I see it."
Now there was one in her living room.
"Are you from New York?" she repeated.
It... no, he; there was a boyish quality to him... slowly shook his head, looking a little perplexed. "I am from... north, in the forest."
Nolee considered this, looking him over more carefully. He wore nothing but a tattered wrap about his waist, of indeterminate material and held in place with thready knots. It qualified as a garment in that it covered the appropriate region, and only just. His ribs showed, and he likely didn't know what a comb was, let alone ever used one on the tangled rat's nest that was his hair. At least he was clean; he smelled faintly of dusty gravel underneath the coating of fresh fruit juice. Nolee frowned thoughtfully. If this was a gargoyle child, then...
"Where are your parents? Other gargoyles?" she asked. "They might be looking for you."
Another wing-shrug and head-shake. "They are gone," he replied, still in a voice only just above a whisper.
"Dead," he clarified simply.
Nolee blinked. "Oh." That explained the sad state he was in, and why he'd been raiding her kitchen. Poor thing! she thought. Probably doesn't know what to do all by himself. He's so small. How old is he, I wonder?
"I'm Nolee," she said. "What's your name?"
Another perplexed look.
"Uh... what did the other gargoyles call you?"
"The little one," he told her, and though he didn't add 'duh' it was almost certainly implied in his tone.
"No name? Like... Harry or Danny, or...?"
A ghost of a smile touched the corners of his mouth. "No."
Encouragingly, Nolee returned the smile. "Okay then. Dunno what I'm going to call you, though."
He blinked, and for a moment he looked as if he were going to ask if she'd been paying attention. Nolee let out a laugh.
"Okay, okay. 'The little one' it is." She held out a hand. "Pleased to meet you."
Little One looked at her hand and wrinkled his nose briefly, then slowly reached his own apple-sticky hand to clasp hers. Nolee grinned broader at him.
"You can stay here until you figure out where you need to be."