The ripe fruit dangled from the tree limb tauntingly.  I’d climbed up to grab it and the damn thing was still slightly out of reach.  As I stretched toward the fruit, my fingers brushed it, causing the fruit to sway on the branch.

            I gritted my teeth, stretching out a little farther each time I tried to grab the fruit.  I hadn’t come this far to give up now.

            Then a monkey strutted right on to the branch and plucked it right before my eyes.

            “Why, you!” I cried out angrily as I tried to nab the stupid pest.  I slipped.  My breath left me in a gasp, my heart lurched and all I saw was the dark brown soil coming fast.

            “I’ve got you!” a voice called.

            The next thing I knew, I was leaning against a tree trunk with my chest heaving.  It seemed I had blacked out between hearing the voice and being caught.

            “Phew!” said the owner of the voice as he flopped onto the ground across from me, one arm draped across his knee.  “Thought you were done for.  Good thing I wssdmgnwekdn, huh?”

            I stared at his fingernails, each one painted a different color: pink, purple, green, yellow, red.

            “Why are your nails different colors?” I asked.

            He blinked, pushing a lock of his black hair behind his ear.  “Um…what?”

            “Aren’t you supposed to only use one color at once?”

            He stared at me in silence for a moment.  “I just saved your life and that’s what you’re focused on?”

            “He went this way!” a voice called in the distance.

            “Damn it!” the number in front of me cried, peering around the tree trunks.  “Thought I lost them.  Oh, well.”

            He stood up, cracking his knuckles.  I rose to my feet, watching him curiously.

            The number smiled at me with a wink, then leapt out into the path of the voice.  “Hey, guys,” he called, “lookin’ for me?!”

            “Terofmdngsdigmdn!  Modsndghsdmn!”

            He chuckled.  “That’s what they all say,” he said to me.  Then, he closed one eye and moved his fingers as if he were tying knots.

            I peeked out around the trees to see two city guards running toward us.  Suddenly, they ran into a wall.

            After rubbing my eyes, I looked again at where a long concrete wall had sprung up from nowhere right in the middle of the forest floor.  I could hear shouts and banging from the other side.

            “That should hold them,” the number I just met said.  “Come on.”  He latched onto my hand and pulled me along at a run through the wilderness until we left the guards far behind.

            When we finally stopped, I collapsed onto the ground breathing heavily.

            “Woo!” he cried, laughing, “I should getmsndjghjmleodin!  Tehdamdnjghwm!”

            “What did you do?” I asked.

            “Just a bit of magic,” he replied.

            My jaw dropped.

            He chuckled.  “Our introductions got a little sidetracked,” he stated, offering a hand.  “I’m Leslie.”

            “That’s…not a number,” I replied in confusion, taking his hand and letting him pull me up.

            He rolled his eyes.  “That’s right: it’s not a number, it’s a name.  How fresh out of the System are you?”

            I shook my head.  “I’m not sure.  A few days?”

            “Well, what are you called?”

            “112628.”

            Leslie groaned.  “How boring!  But nowedmndjhgasdmng.  Yuahgledmnghvmgedfmnlekr.  And just so there’s no confusion later, my pronouns are ‘they’ and ‘them’.”

            “They and them,” I repeated.

            For a split second, h-they seemed surprised by my reaction.  “Alright,” they said, turning to trek deeper into the trees, “follow me.”

            “To where?” I asked.

            “Illagu.  Otherwise known as: home.”  Leslie glanced back at me with a devious smile.  “Welcome to the Outcasts.”

To be continued…

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