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The Strange Town in the Middle of the Forest by Max Szredni (47)


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            Domei opened his eyes blearily. All he could see was a vague white blur—the rat! Domei started, now wide awake—but no, it was just his own hand lying limply in front of his face. It took him a split second to remember why he was outside and another moment to realize that someone had just spoken to him. He looked up. Caretaker Fein was towering over him, their single bagful of possessions hanging by their feet. Their eyes flitted around Domei, appraising the dried patches of vomit crusting the porch.

            "Domei—were you drinking?" they whispered hoarsely.

            "What? Oh—no!" he said, trying to collect himself, "no no no no, nothing like that! I was just going for a run—ran too hard is all."

            "It’s six in the morning," Caretaker Fein said.

            Ah, so that explained why he was so damp and cold. "Yes," he said, "a good time for running. Best time in fact. Get the exercise over with early. I just overdid it, I think. Wanted to lie down and cool off for a bit before coming in." He was mightily impressed at how fast his mind was working in order to spin these lies, especially considering the dearth of sleep he had experienced over the past few days. Too bad he couldn't tell Fein how brilliant he was.

            "I was up at five," said Caretaker Fein.

            "That's good," he said, confused.

            "The door to your room was closed when I woke up."

            Domei hesitated, then finally figured out where Caretaker Fein was going with all of this. "Oh!" he exclaimed, trying to sound reassuring. "No, I was out of the house by 4:30—around then. Bright and early. Well, more like dark and early. By the time you were up, I would've been long gone. I think I shut my bedroom door behind me by accident."

            Domei watched Caretaker Fein's face closely. He could almost hear what they were thinking: is it really worth making an issue out of? Haven't I gone through enough with this child already? Do I really want to know why their neutral is caked in dried shit? The caretaker's shoulders slumped. Domei knew he had won.

            "Well, go clean yourself up and get warm. I'm on my way out. Thought I'd get an early start myself. It would be nice if you got this mess cleaned up before the next caretaker comes around—they'll probably be here around nine."

            Domei was jubilant, glad his day would not be hampered by the wrath of Fein. "Yes, of course."

            "And, in case you forgot, it's your sibling's birthday today. You should do something special for them. They're still asleep." Domei had forgotten, and he already started planning how he was going to spend the rest of the day with her. He would have to bombard her with nice things early on, he decided, before she could remember she was mad at him for not allowing her into his room yesterday.

            Caretaker Fein began walking to the next house on their rotation. The back of their large coifed head bobbed atop their neck like a white balloon. "Caretaker Fein!" Domei called. They looked back at him. "Thanks for—you know...helping me out with the Authorities. And the like."

            Caretaker Fein looked as though they were about to say something, but ended up just giving Domei a small nod and a strained smile before continuing on their way. "Never in all my years..." Domei heard the caretaker muttering to themselves as they turned the corner, out of sight.
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