The Portal

by Angela Kempe

The Portal
by Angela Kempe

“Shut up!” Florian shouted.

Gunther shoved Florian to the ground, slamming his head against a low concrete wall in the parking lot.

When Florian opened his eyes, he could see the kids running off. He listened to the pattering of shoes striking cold pavement and their backpacks clanking behind them as they disappeared. Florian rubbed the back of his sore head, cursing to himself. The boys who lived with him at the Foster home often made snide remarks, sneering and deriding him until he’d put on his earphones and hoodie and slink off to his room. Gunther was the leader of the group, and his beatings were getting worse. Florian tried to keep to himself at Gymnasium, because he didn’t want the smart kids finding out he lived in a Foster home. There was nothing to do in his room but read and do homework, which made him smarter, perpetuating a horrible cycle of torment and isolation. But he didn’t care. Education was his way out. Then, he wouldn’t have to care about what anyone said.

The other boys went home to visit their parents. Most of the kids in the home were in a special program to reunite them with their families, but Florian had no family to reunite with. So, he stayed alone with the social workers, helping them with the groceries and household chores. After Florian cleaned out the leaves from the storm gutters, he took his scooter for a long ride. He took it far away from the village where the country roads begin to wind and the hills become wild with trees and rolling fields. Then, he found a good place to stand on the side of the road and watch the horses graze as they flicked off flies with their long coarse tails.

Staring out at the lonely landscape made him feel at home. The German countryside mirrored how he felt about himself. Alive, but unnoticed, and quietly disregarded. Could he ever be happy with that? Could he be as carefree as those damn horses?

The sun began its descent behind the horizon. Florian zipped up his sweater as the chill of dusk gripped his bones like the thin cold fingers of an eerie phantom. He could hear the buzzing of the flies provoking the dusty horses. One of the brown ones gave a fly a smack with his tail and the fly went tumbling off.

“Good one,” Florian cheered.

The faint smell of dry manure wafted up at him. He kind of liked it. The manure mixed with the smell of grass and the fresh spring air and signified the end of a long winter. Signified the end of sleepy days covered in snow and the end of grey foggy skies. He took one last look at the hills before turning back and pushed off, but as he started rolling down the street, something flashed behind him. He looked back, stumbling off his scooter in horror.

“What the?”

His body trembled, but he caught himself, clenching the handlebars tightly as a large spiraling light radiated in front of him. Florian squinted at it and shook his head, trying to believe what he was seeing. Then the light vanished.

“Did you see that?” he asked the horses.

But the horses hadn’t stopped grazing.

As Florian scooted back home, he thought about what he had seen. He couldn’t decide if he had finally gone mad or not, but he definitely wouldn’t tell anyone. All the while, he couldn’t get the image of the spiraling light out of his mind.

He wanted to go back the first chance he got, but the next day was a Monday. So, he went to school as usual and then came home by the public bus. All the kids were talking and laughing with each other, and some of the Foster kids were standing at the very front of the bus cussing in English just for fun. Florian sat alone, mulling over his depression as usual. He was about to put his earphones in when a classmate climbed on. It was Karen, a brunette beauty in his senior class. He quickly put his head down so she wouldn’t see he had been staring, but she had already caught his gaze and pushed herself towards his seat.

“Hi,” she said, gazing down at him with large brown eyes.

Nervously, he fumbled with his earphones. Tried not to notice her glossy lip balm and thought about just putting in his earphones and ignoring her.

“Can I sit here?”

He nodded a quick yes, and she sat down, dropping her backpack into the small space in front of her shoes.

They found themselves uncomfortably close. She looked around the bus anxiously and he decidedly shoved his earphones in his ears. Then, they both fidgeted with their hands, looking anywhere but at one another. The bus came to a loud stop and Florian jumped up.

“Uh… My stop,” he stammered.

“Oh, sure,” she smiled and stood to let him pass. “Tschuess!”

Florian rushed home and did his homework as fast as he could. Then, asked for permission to go out.

“Sechs uhr,” the social worker warned, telling him to be back before six o’clock.

Florian shook his head and rushed out the door.

When he arrived at the field, it was already late. Florian sat on the side of the road and gazed out at the horizon.

Nothing.

Six o’clock came and he had to go back. One of the social workers, Helga, scolded him as he came rushing through the door.

“Sorry, I fell off my scooter!”

Helga was a short woman, but a hefty one hundred kilograms. She was quite friendly, but could be as sharp as a whip with the teenagers. She had always felt a little sorry for Florian and thought he was a pretty good kid. As he traveled across the room, she saw he hadn’t any holes in his clothes and sensed a lie. He sat at the dinner table and they shared a tender, knowing smile.

“Where’d you go?” asked a ten-year-old named Sebastian.

“Nowhere.”

“Maybe he had a date with Karen,” Gunther, joked.

Everyone laughed.

“Who’s Karen?” asked Helga.

Florian gave Gunther an angry look, his face turning red, and balled up his fists under the table. Gunther just whispered to one of the other boys and then looked back at him long and hard. Not so hard that Helga noticed, but hard enough to be threatening.

“Tell me now,” Helga laughed.

“She’s no one,” Florian mumbled.

“Just a girl he likes.”

“Frau Marx, he doesn’t want to tell you he likes her, but everyone knows!”

“Is that right?”

Helga laughed it off. She knew not to keep pushing from years of experience handling teenage boys.

“Well, eat your dinner. You’ve got chores to do.”

Florian brooded at the table for a long while. They would be happy when he was gone, he thought. If that light was a portal, he’d escape from this place.

Florian didn’t have a chance to go back at all that week, but he spent all his free time sketching the spiraling light in his notebooks. He wondered what it was; an alien, a portal, a government experiment? He started devising a plan to spend the whole weekend camped out in the field, telling Helga he was going to stay over at a new friend’s house. He called himself from a public phone and stored the number on his cell under the name Marcus. Then showed her the number to prove he was real. On Saturday morning, he woke up extra early and waited for the staff to go on the balcony for a smoke before stuffing his backpack full of food and soda.

At ten, he scooted back to the same place he had seen the light. Once he got there, he wished he had brought more to read. He got bored only after a few hours, but still he waited. Waited until the sun went down and he had to pull a blanket over his shoulders to ward off the cold. It was hard not to dose off, but that’s what he brought the soda for. He cracked open a Coke. It sizzled as it opened and he took a long sip.

Suddenly, he saw the light flash. He dropped the soda can in the grass and jumped up, watching the light swirl into a small point. He walked slowly towards it. He thought it might disappear as he came closer, like a rainbow, but the light only grew brighter in front of him. So, he reached out his hand to the light, but hesitated to touch it. Would it burn him? Would he disappear? He stood looking at it. This was his chance. The light seemed to be calling him, mesmerizing him even as fear gripped his heart. As he came closer, he could feel the warmth on his face. And then it vanished.

*******************

“Hey you!”

Florian turned around.

“Where’d you go last night?” Gunther said as he approached him with three of his friends.

“Nowhere.”

Gunther shoved him in the chest.

“Did you see your pretty girl?”

He shoved him again.

“Come on, man,” Florian said, stepping back from the group.

“You’re a fucking weirdo!”

Gunther punched him in the face and the other boys kicked him. Florian fell to the ground, writhing in pain as they kicked until he couldn’t move and then ran off high five-ing. After a few minutes, Florian picked himself up and wiped away the blood and tears from his face.

“Fucking losers,” he muttered. “Next time I’m going in that light. I’ll show you losers.”

He stopped at the Markt to use the restroom and clean himself up. Then, bought a soda and some candy and began walking home. He was sure Helga would notice his face. He had cleaned the blood off well, but his eye was cut and bruised and his clothes were stained with mud.

All he could think about on the walk home was how much he wanted to disappear. The thought recurred obsessively in his mind. He tried to stamp it out with his shoes as he stepped. He stuffed his hands in his sweater pockets angrily and furled his brow. Still, the unquenchable desire to end his life remained. If he hadn’t seen the light then maybe he would have hung himself on the tree in the pasture. But, this was even better. He could go somewhere else. He could travel heroically to another world. He could show them.

When he came inside, Helga rushed towards him.

“Oh my! What happened, Florian?”

She sat him down on the couch.

“Nothing.”

Helga got an icepack out of the freezer and gave it to him for his eye.

“Florian,” she looked at him and sighed. “I know the kids make fun of you. Tell me who it was.”

“I’d rather not get beat up again if that’s okay with you.”

Helga put her hand on his shoulder and he flinched a little from the pain.

“Poor thing! Those monsters!”

One of the boys walked through the kitchen and then went off to his room when he saw Florian. When they were alone again, Helga leaned in closer.

“I’ll tell you something, Florian. I’ve been working here for thirteen years and seen a lot of boys come and go. You are smart and kind. Don’t let your situation make your destiny. You make your own destiny.”

If anyone was like a mother to him, it was Helga. She gave him a hug and then left him to his ice.

The following Saturday, Florian went off to his fake friend’s house again. She wouldn’t let him spend the night, but let him stay out till eleven. Florian thought that would be okay and took off for the hills.

When the light came, Florian was ready. He ran up to it and stood as close as he could, trying to catch his breath. This time he was going to step in. He didn’t care. If he was lucky maybe it would suck him out of this world into another dimension or some other place. Even though he liked Karen, he figured it was a long shot anyway. He didn’t think anything here was worth staying for.

He readied himself with a deep breath and expelled all the fear from his lungs. He kept his hands at his sides and closed his eyes, lifting his foot up off the dry grass as the light spun in front of him. He could feel the warmth on his cheeks and on his chest. It felt like summer, drawing him in.

As he stepped into the portal, he felt his will to survive stirring in his soul, swelling up in him like a giant wave. The light was blinding. Hot. He felt himself dying and was surprised when he fought against it.

*******************

Florian opened his eyes.

Helga clasped her hand to her mouth. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.

Florian could hear the slow pulse of the heart monitor as it beeped. He found himself lying in a hospital bed.

“Did you see the portal?” he asked, sleepily.

Helga took his hand, careful not to touch the Iv.

“Portal?”

“The light! You grabbed me out from it, didn’t you?”

Helga wiped tears from her face.

“Gunther and you were in a fight, dear. You hit your head on the pavement. You’ve been in a coma for two weeks. We’re so glad you’re okay. You must not worry. Gunther has been removed from the home. He’ll never hurt you again.”

Florian laid back in the bed and inhaled a slow deliberate breath. His mouth was dry and his lips were cracked. He tried to form the question, but it took some time to wet his throat.

“Then what was the portal?”

*******************

In one dimension Florian died. And in one, he lived. As the portal spun, so spun the endless possibilities for his life. The great pinwheel whirled as his spirit breathed on it a cool soft breath. And Florian fell from blade to blade.

“Florian?” Helga hollered in the biting chill of night.

She flashed her flashlight on the tired melancholy horses. The grass bent softly in the wind and the old tree bowed over the earth heavy and silent.

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The Ride

by Angela Kempe

“This is going to be fun!”

“I hate long lines.”

“It’s only seventy minutes.”

Vanessa looked down at the kids.

“Seventy minutes is a long time,” she said, cynically.

The kids were behaving for the moment, but other children were already climbing along the fence, sitting on the railing, and wreaking havoc, and she knew it was only a matter of time before hers joined in.

“Don’t you dare!” she warned.

JJ looked up at his mother and smiled maliciously.

“Just listen to the music,” Kenny said, trying to calm her.

“What is this?”

“This is the happiest place on Earth. It’s dwarf music!”

Vanessa listened to the simple melody shouting against the noise of the crowd. It was giving her a migraine, but she decided to drop the subject. The line slowly winded into a cool cavern, built from cement, but painted and carved to resemble wood. The noise of the crowd washed over her. The kids busied themselves by playing with the game consoles scattered throughout the line. Vanessa could hear the faint sound of screaming filtering through the noisy crowd.

“It must be a scary ride,” she reported.

“Why do you say that?”

“I can hear screaming.”

Kenny tried to listen, but was distracted by a mining game. He tried to match up the jewels on the touch screen and then confessed, “I hope it isn’t much longer. I have to use the bathroom.”

Vanessa peered ahead. The line only bent into darkness.

“I think that time was wrong. It’s been more than an hour and I can’t see the end.”

“I really have to pee!”

Kenny and Vanessa searched for the end of the line.

“Just get out of line.”

“I don’t see an exit. Plus I waited too long. It’s been two hours. I’m going on this ride!”

“Mommy, I’m tired,” Arianna complained, tugging at Vanessa’s shirt.

“Just a little bit longer.”

“Carry me.”

“I can’t carry you. Walk.”

Arianna sat down defiantly.

“Get up.”

“Carry me!”

Vanessa tried lifting her heavy body. Then gave up, exhausted.

“Get up!”

“We’re almost there. Can’t you hear that?”

The screams were getting louder.

The line inched forward. Vanessa left Arianna sitting against the cold wall.

“Bye!”

But the threat didn’t phase her. She nudged herself over to her mother on her bottom.

“Hear that?” a hefty man turned back towards them.

Kenny chimed in.

“I heard this is worth the wait.”

“It’d better be worth the wait,” said the stranger.

“Okay, I have to go.”

He was referring to peeing.

“Just wait a little longer,” Vanessa begged.

“I’m going to pee my pants!”

“You can hold it, please! Don’t let me alone with these kids!”

Kenny stuffed his hands in his jean pockets, defeated.

“Fine.”

The line folded and twisted through the cold cavern, descending deeper and deeper underground. The children began first; complaining, crying. Then the adults in front of them started hollering down the deep tunnel, “Hey, how much longer?”

Kenny and the man decided to take a walk out of line to see how far it actually went. Vanessa waited another hour, carrying Arianna on her back as Jackson trailed behind them angrily. Then finally they returned.

“We gotta get out of here!” Kenny said.

Vanessa recognized fear in his voice, but didn’t understand.

“Why?”

“We walked for an hour. The line doesn’t end! I finally peed in the dwarf creak.”

“What do you mean, doesn’t end?”

Her eyes were already glazed over from exhaust. She was having trouble comprehending.

“Let’s go!” the man instructed his family.

They tried rushing passed them. Then stopped abruptly, as if they had slammed into something. They put their hands up in the air. Vanessa read the terror in their wide horrified eyes. Saw their skin drain of its color.

“What?” she asked.

The man pushed and knocked at something hard.

“There’s a wall here!”

His wife started crying. She dropped to the cold cement like Arianna.

“What?” Vanessa said, trying to pull herself out of the nightmare.

Kenny tried to take JJ, but also crashed into the invisible wall. He tried to see it, but there was nothing there to see.

“We can’t go back. We can move forward, but we can’t go back!”

Desperation sharpened his voice.

He beat against the air, the people behind them oblivious, nudging them forward in a daze.

“Help!” Vanessa screamed.

The kids cried. Panic set in. Everyone was screaming. Propelled by some mysterious force. Trapped in the real ride; A steep winding descent into madness.

Pumpkin Pie

by Angela Kempe

“That looks good!”

“It’s gluten free!”

“I won’t eat it!” Savanah said.

“Come on! I spent hours baking. You have to try!”

Savanah’s mother placed the pie on the table and walked away. Savanah stared at it. It smelled ordinary enough and had an ordinary color. Placed on a fancy white plate at the center of the table between a poinsettia and two white candles. Savanah rest her head on her palms as Grandpa walked by.

“You have to wait,” he smiled.

“I don’t want it!” Savanah sulked.

But Grandpa was already gone.

Just then, the pie wiggled.

“Mommy!” Savanah yelled, staring suspiciously.

There were too many people for her voice to be heard. She got on her tippy toes and leaned towards the pie. Tiny bubbles were forming on the smooth orange surface. Then, the center cracked and split down the middle. Savanah cowered behind the table, but gathered up her courage, leaned in closer and stared unflinchingly as a line of tiny bugs crawled out.

They formed a line like black ants across the table. Crawled all the way up to an inch away from her chin. Savanah squinted hard at the creatures. They looked like tiny men and were trying to say something to her, but she couldn’t understand.

“You better not get into that pie!” said her mother.

“Mommy! Mommy! There’s something in the pie! Aliens! Mommy, Look!”

Her mother laughed. Took up her knife in her hand and pushed passed Savanah.

“Oh, Savvy! Such a wild imagination!”

Savanah searched the table, but the creatures were gone. The pie was smooth as if just out of the oven. Savanah’s eyes were wide as her mother cut through the middle of the pie, cut out a large piece, and put it on a plate.

“Sure you don’t want a piece?”

Savanah cringed.

“No, thank you, Mama.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, and gave it to Grandpa.

The Fading World

by Angela Kempe

Veronica was born different and she was three when she realized it. There was something different as her mother held her up to the mirror.
“Mama, gone!” she said.
“Yes, V, and Mommy comes back again.”
“Peek-a-boo?”
“Peek-a-boo.”

And so, she walked through life. All of her friends fading in and out. Grandpa and Grandma never came back and Mother called it “dead.” Sometimes her friends disappeared for months or even years. Then, after years something else had also faded that she couldn’t quite place. She could barely recognize the edges of their face. Conversations seemed distant. Strained. She’d wait for them to return, but they wouldn’t. So, V made new friends. Each time with the same result.
Mother was always there. Each time her face emerged, like joy born from a thick fog, V rushed in to embrace her.
“Your face has changed, Mother,” she said, feeling her soft worn cheeks.
“And so has yours,” she smiled.

As V sat in her rocking chair, she looked out at her faded world.
Why must I be here if everything fades?
No matter how many years had passed, and she counted ninety-two. She still remained constant in this fading world. And each time a loved one went, her heart felt broken and her eyes wet, but still she remained. Even as her hair turned gray and her skin wrinkled.
V watched a horse from her porch in the pasture weave in and out of existence. She tried to remember its details when it was gone before it formed again minutes later. She rested her head against the rickety chair and enjoyed the brilliant colors of the sunset as it faded away, too.
I’m glad I enjoyed it, she thought, closing her eyes. While it was here.

Seashells

by Angela Kempe

The deafening scream of sirens wailing startled me from the dishes. I wiped my sudsy hands off on my jeans and ran.

“Kids! Kids!”
When I rounded the corner I met their wide eyes. Lifted Monica up into my arms and we started for the door.
“Get out of the house! Hurry!”
I took Adam by the hand and rushed them out. The kids began crying, holding their ears in pain while I searched the sky.
Jenny’s home had gone last Tuesday. Sometimes three or four would be taken in one neighborhood. Sometimes months would pass, but the fear never did. It turned in our stomach like curdled milk. It lingered in our nightmares.
Monica squeezed her little arms around me tightly.
“Mommy!”
There was terror in her voice.
“I see it! Run!”
Adam raced ahead of us.
“Stay with us!” I screamed.
“It’s coming!” he yelled. “It’s coming!”
Suddenly a large hole tore the sky and a long smooth tentacle appeared. The winds whipped into a violent frenzy. The kids stopped crying and just stood there looking up open mouthed as it grew longer, larger, closer, covering the street with its thick dark shadow.
I nudged Adam to go. Tried to carry him, but couldn’t handle his large body, so set him back on the ground.
“Run!” I cried, hysterically.
The tentacle dug into the ground and the pavement began to crack and crumble around it as it scooped up the cement and the earth. We ran behind a parked car as pieces fell around us. Another family was hiding. The father’s eyes met mine. I begged him with my entire being to stay and he understood.
“Who’s house?” I yelled.
The man looked around the edge of the car. The sweat was beading up on his black skin, but he hadn’t let go of his son to wipe his face.
“203, I think.”
He looked back at my stone cold eyes and knew it was mine and again, we shared a solemn moment.

 

 

     “MaKia! MaKia! Look at my shell!”
Nedimiah was glad she went to the beach. She held out her prize for MaKia to see.
“Wow!” MaKia said, wading through space. “Is there a family in it? Be sure to wash it out first.”

Danika

by Angela Kempe

Marlene felt her skin stretch and pain shoot through her stomach into her groin. She shut her eyes and forced another breath before bearing down hard. The distinct feeling of her skin tearing sent her into a panic.

“My skin is tearing! My skin is tearing!”

“Breathe!”

A sudden fog surrounded her. Was it the pain or the lack of oxygen? She wasn’t sure, but she new there was only one way to end this misery.

“Give her oxygen.”

A nurse placed a plastic mask over her face. She struggled to open her eyes. Struggled to sip one last breath before fainting.

“Don’t faint. Breathe, Marlene!”

Feeling someone squeeze her hand, she screamed a horrific cry. A strange hard thing crowned. She imagined its head at the edge of light and could not hear her own voice filling the room any longer. There was only time, paused like a dream. She could see her connection with it like a band of light as it slipped from her body. And all was over.

When Marlene came to, the doctor brought her baby close to her face. She could smell the blood on it. Smell its innocence. She reached to take off her oxygen mask and give the young flesh its first kiss.

Smiling, she touched the fat little arms and kissed her.

“Danika,” she announced.

The doctor repeated, “Danika,” to the nurse who recorded the name as Danika Lee. Then the doctor carried the baby to a large machine and nestled the child tightly in its grasp. Strapped the little arms and legs. Brought down the lid over the baby. Marlene had fought against tears, but her baby’s cries were too much.

Marlene felt her first pang of maternal instinct. She told herself this was necessary as she listened to the shrill sound of a saw blade spinning. Her baby stopped crying. Marlene closed her eyes. This pain was even more intense than the first.

“Body is severed.”

Marlene felt a numbness come over her as she realized it was too late to stop. She waited for an answer and the seconds moved like years. It was too much for her to take, so she struggled herself up from the bed, fighting against the nurses and her husband, and stumbled across the room. The staff held her back as she stood before the machine that held her baby prisoner, tears rolling down her eyes as she waited.

“It’s okay,” her husband said, placing a gentle hand over her arm.

She discovered a new hatred for him. The wait seemed like hours. It was only seconds.

“Spinal connection is successful!” the tech said.

Slowly, the lid opened and there was her baby sleeping soundly.

“Now Danika will lead a healthy life,” the doctor smiled.

Marlene reached into the incubator. The fat little arms were gone. She touched the soft new artificial limbs. It felt similar to the original but lacked of something. Realizing Marlene’s own fingers were in fact not original, she found a new bond between mother and child. Something she would now be able to enjoy for several hundred years.

Under the Bed

by Angela Kempe

David climbed out of bed and swung his door wide open, standing defiantly in the bright light of the hall in his cotton Pokemon pjs.

“Go back to bed!” his mother shouted from the living room.

David was sure his mommy had a superhero ability to see through walls. He turned apprehensively toward his room. His duvet was jumbled into a mess at the foot of the bed and the folds were casting menacing shadows resembling long monster faces. David had stuffed his dirty clothes and some toys under the bed in a mad rush to watch TV and some of their colors and edges were poking out of the darkness in unsettling shapes. It was hard to make out what they were, but he knew not to be afraid. So, he watched the shapes closely as he inched himself back into the dark.

Standing at his mattress, his thoughts drifted momentarily to drawing pictures on the floor, when suddenly he felt something grab at his foot. David screamed, falling back in horror.

“Mommy! Mommy!” he said, running to the living room.

Tears streamed down his red face.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?”

She wiped the wet hair away from his sweaty brow.

“There’s a monster under my bed!”

At that, she laughed and squeezed him tight.

“Don’t worry, baby! There’s no such thing as monsters.”

She picked his small body up and he tangled his arms around her neck as they walked back to his room. Then, she lay him in his bed and pulled the covers up snug to his neck.

“See,” she said, gazing into his glassy eyes. “Everything is safe.”

David wanted to tell her otherwise, but was lulled by the full tones of her voice and the soft touch of her fingers combing through his hair. He let her walk out the door, but not a minute later, remembered he was alone again in the dark. So, he shook away his sleepiness and kicked off the covers, sitting cross-legged on his mattress.

David peered over the edge of the bed. Everything was eerie quiet. A gentle moonlight cast a dim light across the room, but the floor lay in deep shadows. The space under his bed was hard to see from above. So, David jumped off and got down on his hands and knees, peering into the dark. He could see his ball and the edge of a dirty shirt. Maybe the monster was hiding. He pressed his cheek against the cold hard wood. He choked down his fear and stretched his hand under the bed.

When David could see through to the other side, he began feeling a little more at ease. Then, suddenly the ground shook. David screamed and pressed his body against the floor. He tried to grip as it shook, but he couldn’t get his small hands to stop himself and hit his back against the steel bed frame.

When the house stopped shaking, David began to sob. But, just as he was about to run to his mother, he was stopped by a strange movement above the mattress. He held his breath and squeezed his eyes shut. He listened to the door swing open once again. He listened to his heart pounding in his ears and held his breath until he felt faint. Then, he listened to the steps coming towards him.

David fought with himself until he decided to look. Decide that he was still alive. He opened his eyes and began to analyze the strange white toes, small and delicate, wiggling before him. Curious, he reached out to touch the small feet, brushing his hand across cotton Pokemon pajama bottoms.