Imrians can sense other people’s emotions through touch, which is great on Kurra, where that’s part of everyday life, but on Earth it can lead to problems. Humans don’t have this ability, which means they’re also not used to controlling how much emotion they express internally. One of the first things I had to learn on Earth was how to close myself off from sensing humans’ emotions so that I wouldn’t become overwhelmed by them. But also, it’s not right for us to eavesdrop on their feelings without their consent. That’s one of the first things my parents taught me when I realized I was different from humans. I slip up sometimes, and it can be really tempting to do it, but I try not to.
I heard Morgan’s breath catch. “Who’s that?” she whispered, nudging me.
A man was emerging from the Sedona Outdoor Adventures bus. “I don’t know,” I said. He had short, dark blond hair and was wearing cargo shorts and a muscle shirt that showed off tanned biceps. The other girls in Nature Club giggled nervously.
“He’s so cute,” Morgan breathed.
“Yeah,” I said. He was cute, and he knew it. I could tell by the way he grinned at Ms. Lucas, who looked the teeniest bit flustered.
“Listen up, everyone,” Ms. Lucas called, turning away from the guy. When we were standing in a circle, Ms. Lucas said, “Let me introduce you to our professional guide. This is Matt Steiger, a grad student at Arizona State. Matt studies ecology and leads tours through the Coconino every summer. We are lucky to have him.”
“Hey everyone,” Matt Steiger said with a grin. Morgan practically swooned, and all of a sudden the Zach Effect seemed way less important. Nice to meet you, Matt, I thought. Thank you for distracting Morgan. Maybe this camping trip would be more fun than I expected.
I was born on Earth, and I lived there with my parents until I was five years old. That’s when we came back to Kurra for four years. My parents wanted me to go to school for a while with the other Imrian kids in Isina’uru—to learn what it was like to be Imrian—but they were also worried that if I went to elementary school on Earth, I’d slip up and reveal who we were. I had to learn how to lie.
By the time I was nine, I understood what was expected of me. Ama took me back to Earth and enrolled me at Hunter Glen, a boarding school. It was horrible at first. I missed my parents and my Imrian friends, and after four years on Kurra, Earth felt like an alien planet. The food was weird, the clothes were strange, and I had to speak English all the time, which meant I had to remember to call my parents mom and dad rather than ama, aba and ada. The thing that made me most uncomfortable was hiding the fact that I had two fathers. I could have said one was my stepdad; I could have said my fathers were gay and my mom was their surrogate. There were plenty of lies I could have made up, but all of them felt wrong. I’d lie about me, but I didn’t want to lie about my family, and I knew nobody at school would understand my parents’ relationship. Humans were just so incredibly different from the Imria. Their emotions were so volatile that even though I tried to close myself off to them, sometimes they still broke through unexpectedly. At the beginning, it felt like I was trapped in an unending game of dodge ball, and I couldn’t keep my defenses up 24/7.
It wasn’t until I became friends with Morgan, who seemed to totally get me, that I began to relax and to accept my life on Earth. Of course, as soon as I started to feel like I belonged, it was time to leave. I had to go back to Kurra after eighth grade to prepare for my first kibila.
Kibila is a ritual of renewal that each Imrian goes through every fifteen years. The first one, kibila’sa, takes place when you turn fifteen. It’s the most important one, because it’s the first time you officially choose your own identity. Depending on which region of Kurra your family lives in, the ritual involves hiking into the mountains or spending time at sea. You go with a cohort of other Imrians in your age group, and every fifteen years, that cohort will reunite and renew their identities together.
Historically, everyone born on the same day undergoes kibila together, but in recent generations there have been fewer and fewer Imria born, so now we have to fudge the dates a little. Now, kibila links together those born within the same month. There’s only one other Imrian in the Isi Na region whose birthday corresponds to mine: Nasha Shuri.
I knew Nasha when we were little; she was one of only a couple of dozen students at the Isina’uru school. She changed a lot in the time I was at Hunter Glen on Earth. I remembered her only as part of the group—she didn’t stand out or anything—but when I returned at fourteen, Nasha was clearly the one in charge. She dressed in amazing, crazy clothes that looked like costumes to me: with headdresses and platform shoes and makeup that I had never seen before. For a couple of months, she colored her entire body purple and wore semi-clear robes that obscured very little.
The other students weren’t as over the top as Nasha, though her closest friends emulated her styles. She was the one everybody wanted to be friends with; she was the one everybody wanted, period. She was nice enough to me, but she didn’t make any serious attempts to befriend me. I tried a couple of times, but she always seemed uninterested. A few times I got the impression that she was going out of her way to avoid touching me, which was really weird for an Imrian. We usually only do that when we’re hiding something, and I couldn’t figure out what she might be hiding.
My friend Uli told me that she thought Nasha was holding back because we were too alike. “You’ll clash,” she said. “You’d always be competing for attention.”
“We’re nothing alike,” I objected. “She’s dressed like—I don’t know like what—and I’m just normal.” I was wearing a Hunter Glen T-shirt that day.
Uli gave me a pointed look. “Nobody else here looks like you. You wear those clothes to show that you’re different from us. Just like Nasha.”
I had never thought about it like that before. I knew that despite Nasha’s popularity, I was the famous one on Kurra. I was the Earthsider. I hadn’t realized I was wearing that label like ga’emen—an identity—just like Nasha’s purple skin.
So I gave Uli one of my extra pairs of jeans, and later, I kissed her. It was so easy, so straightforward, because I knew Uli wanted to kiss me. I knew when I touched her hand and sensed it in her: that unmistakable bubble of anticipation, that invitation.
I bought some Kurran clothing after that, but I couldn’t bring myself to stop wearing my Earth-made clothes. Maybe I did it to stand out, like Uli said, but I also did it because I missed Earth, and putting on my jeans and T-shirts made me feel a little bit more at home.
Nasha’s ga’emen, on the other hand, changed. She got her black hair tipped with living green sea fronds so that she resembled an underwater Medusa. Uli told me Nasha had to feed the sea fronds regularly by bathing in a nutrient bath or else they would die and turn into stinky brown weeds.
During kibila, everyone wears the same stuff: a climate-controlled suit for the overnight excursion before the ritual, and traditional robes for the ritual itself. I have a hard time imagining Nasha in anything as plain as the clothes I’ve been fitted for.
I wonder what she’ll be like during kibila’sa. Everyone says that the experience changes everything. That it builds bonds between cohort members. For one thing, you’re not allowed to communicate via touch during kibila, so your relationship with your kibila cohort is different from your relationships with other Imrians. Since communication through physical touch—we call it susum’urda—is basically the cornerstone of Imrian culture, it’s kind of a big deal. A lot of Imrians get freaked out about the idea of being isolated within their own consciousness because they’re so accustomed to knowing, always, how others feel about them. I’m not worried about it, since I’ve lived on Earth. Humans never know for sure how others feel.