Master of the Menagerie
I couldn’t look away, couldn’t move no matter how many tripped over me on the sidewalk. My ten-year-old soul had been pierced by an invisible string, and I was tethered to this spot, only a thin pane of glass separating me from this wonderous creature.
She also stood motionless and silent, curves stained a dark cherry, neck long and black with four silver lines descending her front. She said nothing, but I heard her like chimes. She begged me to touch her. She promised she would sing if I did, me and no one else. All others ignored her.
But all I could do was stare.
Night draped a cold blanket on the world, and the shop owner locked up, chasing me off in the process. As I neared home, I heard shouting and entered through the broken window in the back rather than announce my presence by negotiating with the crooked front door.
Sweeping a meager handful of crumbs off the counter, I crouched behind the hole-ridden chair in the corner of our one-room shack, ate, and listened to the rhythm of the bellows. The words were different from those spoken in our town, their meaning lost to me, but the melody they wove warned me to stay hidden.
My father pleaded. The stranger wearing a soft suit demanded. Father was scared. The stranger possessed no mercy, teeth sharp like a dragon’s, mustache shaped like a bull’s horns, eyes round and dark in the shadow of a top hat’s brim.
Gentler voice gliding between the stranger’s, Father backed toward the counter. Was he aiming for our only knife in the drawer beneath the sink?
Is this the only way? I wondered, gut clenched so tight it was surely about to snap my spine. This scary man is so big. Father can’t fight him alone. Am I meant to help? Do I jump out now or wait until he has passed?
Fingers dug into my bicep and yanked me from behind the chair, my breadcrumbs flying. A hand on either shoulder, Father stood me in front of him, speaking more fervently. I tried to step back, to lean against my father, but he pushed me toward the stranger.
Arms crossed, the large man sounded dismissive and derisive, like the snap of a heron’s wing as it leaves you behind.
“Sing, my child,” Father whispered.
I couldn’t, not with my heart blocking my throat or my diaphragm hiding in my toes. I shook my head.
“You must sing,” Father hissed. “I would give you to this tycoon to pay my debt, to save my life and the lives of your siblings. He won’t take you if he thinks you’re worthless, and singing is your only skill.”
I gasped. Father was supposed to protect me, not hand me over to monsters. He told us that every night, that he would always protect us. But when danger drew near, he shoved me at the monster, both our knees shaking.
Father was a coward, and so was I.
I opened my mouth to do as I was told, but only a wheezy croak emerged, like a toad getting stepped on. The stranger scowled and hollered over my head.
Do not disappoint Father. Do not let this man hurt your family.
The words became a beat in my head, giving my heart something to follow. Slowly, it slid out of my throat, and my voice grew stronger, high and clear, like the song of a nightingale, the bird for which my mother named me: Kocho.
Father always thought it was a stupid name for a boy.
I sang of the freedom of the ocean and the wind. Of how the rain roamed but always came back again. Into the music poured borrowed emotions wrought from when my mother had sung the same song. I knew nothing of the sea beyond the stench of the harbor, yet I sang as if I had tiptoed along the crests of its waves. All I knew of freedom was running through crowded streets just fast enough to avoid being crushed by carriage wheels. That feeling, too, was knit into the music.
The song took all of me, and I didn’t notice when the shouting stopped. I fell back into reality only when the stranger’s hand clapped over my mouth. It smelled of foreign spices, skin as soft as a kitten’s fur.
He knelt, an odd glint in his gray eyes. “This shabby town is not worthy of such art. You could compete with any of the pet musicians back home.”
He threw me over his shoulder.
This room was thrice the size of our shack. I stood in the center, surrounded by cushioned divans and glittering lamps. The suit I wore was a miniature version of the master’s, with a short breast and long coattails, but I had grown considerably in the month since he first brought me here. The pant legs revealed my shins, and the coat restricted my breathing.
Based on the visit of a man with a measuring tape that morning, I hoped a new, larger outfit would arrive soon.
This evening, another stranger stood before me, holding a curious case. It called to me, a low hum, the purr of a cat, with the high-pitched jingle of a bell. It wanted me to open it, to set the contents free, but Master didn’t like when I opened things. When he was displeased, I received no food. When he was pleased, I had more than enough.
Even the dumbest of creatures could understand that.
So I held back, hands shaking as the call grew louder. I stared at the case, a harpoon shot through me, digging at my insides as I disobeyed its tug.
“Eyes like a starving man’s,” the newcomer chuckled, propping the case on a couch.
This must be a truly valued thing if it’s allowed to touch the cushions.
I wasn’t allowed to touch the cushions.
The man spoke more, words too fast for me to catch and squeeze the meaning out of. Master replied in kind, leaning forward on the largest of the divans, elbows on his knobby knees as the elongated case flipped open.
Breath left me.
Polished cherry wood gleamed in the flickering chandelier light, again crying for me to touch it. What started as the tinkle of a lone bell rolling across the floor grew into a cascade of chimes pouring off a balcony, each one landing on my head and ringing in my ears. I could no longer ignore the harpoon drawing me closer, my hand lifting, fingers stretched.
I stopped, frozen, the pull still loud and strong, but Master’s gaze was on me. With effort like pushing a boulder uphill, I turned my head to him, all my strength stuffed into staying still, waiting for permission.
He nodded, explaining something I couldn’t hear and wouldn’t have understood anyway.
The newcomer held the instrument out to me, telling me her name: Violin.
Tentatively, I ran my fingertips along her edges: the ridge where her faceplate met her sides, the c-shaped niches at her waist, the pins on her head, and lastly the strings. They were unique, arranged from thinnest to thickest.
The newcomer, a teacher, impatiently shoved Violin into my arms and grabbed a smooth stick lined with fine hair. Arranging Violin’s body at my chin, my left palm supporting her neck, he fit the bow into my right hand and glided it across her strings.
She hummed one note, a question: What did I want her to do?
Teacher turned me toward Master and let go. A grin tugged at my lips, and a song sizzled within my veins, smooth and quick like raindrops.
I pulled the bow back across the strings, but Violin was nervous of my touch, shy, and she sounded like a cat choking up a hairball.
Master threw a book at me, and I managed to turn, shielding my new partner.
Sing like I know you can, I begged her. Don’t bring shame to your family.
Another book hit my back, corner leaving a sting beneath my shoulder blade, and this time my pull on the bow was more insistent, more forceful. Violin cried, giving voice to the color blossoming across my back.
As my fingers flitted over the strings, she responded with new pitches, tones higher the closer my hands came to one another. The less my hands shook, the harder I gripped, the stronger her voice became, shyness vanishing, and I dared turn back to the master.
I stood tall, not as tall as Master, but as tall as I would ever be. In the largest room I had ever been in, floor and columns of marble, I only saw the beats in every movement. Master’s collection surrounded me, a menagerie he trusted me to master. Each of them was a part of me; their voices were woven into my blood, and my songs flowed through them.
It was said I could upstage any pet musician, but I didn’t see it as a competition like that. The more voices there were, the louder and longer we all poured everything we had into the blank, bored air, the more music won.
Silence constantly fought to crush me, and the members of my menagerie were my comrades, my armor, giving me the power to fight back.
Here in this grand hall, onlookers clapped a beat, drawing a path for the sound to follow. My fingers ran along the piano, and it giggled, voice wavering, spiraling three notes at a time, striking the bottom as a flute met my lips. With its astronomical, clear chortles, the melody returned, describing the movements of the dancers’ feet, the swing of their hips and arms.
They stopped, but the path didn’t end there, growing wider, golden and brilliant. I soaked in its radiance and channeled it through me, fingers buzzing as the flute slid back to its stand and I caught up Violin.
She sang one deep note, and someone grabbed my arm. As I stared at him, brows furrowed, someone else took Violin.
“You cannot be a pet musician anymore,” her captor said. I wanted to reach for her, but the first man’s grip on my arm was as unyielding as a statue’s. “You are free.”
I shook my head. “I just want to play music.”
“No. You must be free.” His eyes were a glittering crystal glass filled with insistence tinted dark with concern. “The new law says so. You must be something else.”
But I didn’t know how to be anything else.
Shoes were this factory’s business. Music was forbidden to me, stuffed and sealed inside because it would draw the wrong kind of attention. I was to let no one believe I had ever been anything but a cobbler.
Pet musicians were useless, lazy, dirty.
Yet, as my new comrades and I worked side by side, affixing soles to footwear, the beat of our hammers called to the music I tried so very hard to keep within and hidden. When I willed my toes not to tap, my leg shook, and if I leaned an elbow on it to force it still, I felt an explosion might take me at any moment.
“Boss,” a new worker said behind me as our employer led him around on his initial tour, “at your brother’s factory, a musician plays fast ditties to keep our hands moving.”
“As if I’d ever hire one of them filthy creatures,” Boss sneered.
My shoulders hitched closer to my ears.
If he knew…
“Just a suggestion,” the newbie waived, voice reedy like an oboe’s. “Maybe try it and see how production goes? Your brother’s factory does often beat you in productivity.”
I chewed on my lower lip, hammer fallen still as I strove to wear silence’s uniform. It didn’t fit me. Sometimes it was ripped to shreds when the brilliance in my veins seeped through my skin.
“You make it sound like it’d be so easy to find one. Most musicians are scam artists, and they’re harder to get rid of than fleas.”
They were almost to Boss’ office. Chance flowed through my frozen fingers.
Tell him! Tell him! the hammers whispered, and before I knew it, I stood, workload clattering on the table.
“Boss!” A rough blast from a trombone. I flinched at my own voice, shoulders trying to cover my ears again.
The boss turned. “Yes?” His eyes flitted over my name badge. “Kocho?”
My hands became wooden boards at my sides, stiffness crawling into every part of me as the hammers slowed and stopped, all eyes watching.
“I know how to play a little music.” My timbre was as soft as a harp’s, but I forced my chin level and looked at the boss. He knew I wasn’t lazy, I wasn’t filthy or a con artist, didn’t he? Would he throw me out because the blood that ran through me was tainted with sound? Because it burned within me? Because I was too weak to hold it in anymore?
It took over. I wasn’t aware of any response. Hammer back in hand, I pounded a beat as nails slid home and I sang. The inferno that had built, trapped for years with no outlet, poured into the factory. It massaged and scraped my throat, saturating the room and echoing back as ripples and waves, and I crashed through them, creating more, throwing everything I was and ever would be into the organized chaos.
Over and over the beat cycled, raging high and simmering low.
Blankness took three, my arm swinging too far and clunking late on the table.
I blinked. The workload was done. There was nothing left to be hammered.
The sun had moved from its mid-morning slant to its late-afternoon blaze, highlighting fountains of dust as it streamed in the windows near the ceiling. Everyone’s piles were neatly boxed and stacked, their attention fixed firmly on me.
I dropped my hammer, its clatter giving me the beat on which to turn, a slow, tentative rotation toward Boss, who stood halfway out his fancy rolling chair. His gaze was like the stranger’s who had taken music away, spindly brows low over clear blue eyes dripping in concern.
I couldn’t be a soldier for silence anymore. I didn’t believe in that fight, and it was killing me. My knees shook, and the scene blurred. Before I could fall, I ran.
All I could be was a musician. That was all the music would let me be, and if that was wrong, why was I in this world? What was my purpose?
A glint caught my eye through a shop window, and I barged in, wiping tears from my eyes. There in the corner of a dingy pawn shop, mostly covered in rags and knickknacks, Violin slept.
Scooping her up, I cradled her to my chest, back scraping against the papered wall as I sunk to the floor.
“Sir, you can’t sit there,” the counter man rebuked, glare both chiding and expectant.
Violin’s silent chimes jingled. They described the uncertain footsteps of a child drawing nearer to someone barely remembered. The closer they came, the louder the bells rang, their strength and confidence overwhelming me, towing me to my feet.
Holding Violin tighter against me, I scrambled to the counter, my last pennies dug from my pocket and pressed against the glass, their clinks reverberating through my fingertips and into my bones. Violin wanted to answer their call, to sing the song trapped within me.
“It’s worth much more than that,” the man scoffed, his spittle landing on my face. My gaze dropped to my shaking hands.
I knew it wasn’t enough. I alone knew how much Violin was worth. She was a piece of my soul, and souls were not to be bartered with. They didn’t belong alone in a pawn shop.
So I returned to the corner, leaning against the wall as I held the missing part of me.
As the sun burned red on the horizon, Boss stormed into the shop, a policeman at his heels. Their thick shoes spelled a heavy rhythm on the wooden floor, saying everything.
I’ll be taken away.
Panic pooled within me, igniting the fire again. I wanted to scream, anything to scare off silence’s approach. It would kill me this time. My own blood would incinerate me from the inside out.
Why can’t I release my music into the world without disturbing anyone? When did they start to hate clapping the rhythm for me? What happened? When did this blessing become a curse? When did music become a bad thing?
I hugged Violin harder, her strings protesting against my shirt, an awful, pitiable sound.
Boss knelt. “We’ve been looking for you.”
I stared, not daring to move. Could he see the fire burning in me? My eyes were dark; flames should have been easy to spot. Father used to say eyes were the window to the soul and mine only opened the door to a useless place.
Silence claimed Boss for several moments, posing him with pursed lips. I waited, cherishing what time I had left with Violin.
“Are you a real musician?”
“I’ve never heard anyone sing like that. You’re like a bird.” He chuckled. “And you kind of flew off like one, too. Can you play these instruments as well?”
“Yes.” I sounded like a frog, and I hated it.
I am Kocho, the nightingale. Why should I have to deny the music that weaves me?
I frowned, and Boss’ brows knit together. “Which one?”
“All of them.”
I am the master of the menagerie.
His eyes widened, then he pointed at Violin. “But that one’s your favorite?”
I let silence win one more time, but he saw the answer anyway.
Holding up a finger to tell me to wait, Boss approached the counter and spoke with the man there. Money notes were exchanged, and Boss returned to drag me out of the corner and usher me out the door.
I kept my head low, arms crossed over Violin as I concentrated on keeping beat with Boss’ footsteps. The policeman outpaced us, disappearing in the crowd on the sidewalk.
“Did you just…buy me from that shop?”
“I bought that instrument, and I’m giving it to you.” He smiled, and I didn’t have any idea what it meant.
“I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in things I’ve seen with my own eyes, and I saw more get done in a few hours today than in most weeks. I think I might finally be able to beat out my brother if you come back to the factory. I’ll pay you to work that musical magic again and again.”
A new song welled within me, taut and high with hope, rich and full with purpose, one thought darting through my mind: Is this finally where I belong?
I knew part of the answer. I belonged wherever music did.
Stronger Than Me
Why would the committee choose me? My resumé touted skills like ‘proficient in Microsoft Word and Quick Books.’ Nowhere did it say anything about diapers.
Rewrapped in a soft, gray blanket, the child looked up at me with uncanny focus, and I turned away, gaze darting out the bay window and into the evening sky. Stars dotted the horizon, peeking between silhouettes of mountains and outshining the more distant speckles meant to bedazzle the heavens.
These stars were fake.
“It won’t grow if you don’t feed it,” chided a warm, slightly grated voice. Time had bent the nurse’s back while laughter had drawn crow’s feet from her eyes and lips. Wisdom had dyed her braided hair the color of the moon.
Clucking at my bewildered expression, she placed a tepid bottle in my grasp and guided it to the baby’s mouth. The contents smelled like paint thinner, and despite the beige tint, I doubted it was milk.
The infant guzzled it, eyes never closing. I wouldn’t meet that gaze, not again.
“Ma’am, what’s in the bottle?”
“Food,” she chuckled, “and that’s all you need to know, Mr. Lane. Just don’t try to eat it yourself.”
I frowned. “Please don’t treat me like an idiot.”
“No, not an idiot. Of course not,” she cooed with a pat on my arm, “but you are very ignorant, and your superiors have designed things to keep it that way. Will you listen to an old woman’s advice?”
Always look people in the eyes, my papa said time and again. That’s where you’ll find the truth hiding.
So I did, and despite the sagging skin that made her eyes appear closed and the cataracts that clouded her pea green irises, a brightness and energy greeted me. Her eagerness jumped to my heart, her desire for me to succeed, her confidence that I could.
I nodded, and she smiled.
“Love conquers all.”
“I’m sorry?” I questioned. What did love have to do with this?
Her hands folded behind her back, immaculate, bleached scrubs glowing like a specter in the sunset’s rays. She was the only brilliant thing in this small, dull room. My black suit and tie seemed sinister in comparison.
“Do you know why the first nurse told you to hold the child?”
I shook my head. I would have preferred to leave it in the clear cradle.
“It’s the power of the human touch.” She repositioned my arms, pressing the infant tighter to my chest as she pushed me onto a rocking chair. “One gains strength from knowing they are loved. This child will need that strength.”
“I can’t love it,” I sputtered. “It’s not human. I can’t even tell if it’s a boy or girl.”
“It’s neither. That child has one purpose, and reproduction is not necessary. If we need more, the scientists will craft them. Your job is to ensure we don’t need more.”
“By loving a monster so it grows up nice and strong?” I grumbled and made the mistake of looking at it. Deep brown eyes met mine, vertical pupils flexing and contracting. I fell into them, a spiral slide with no end, breath abandoning me as the ride grew steeper, faster.
“Would it help if it had a name?”
Her words gave me something to grasp, a lifeline. All my strength poured into tugging on it. I felt like an ancient sailor hoisting the rigging, but it was only my eyelids that moved. As if tied to them, my jaw followed, opening, but I couldn’t quite control my voice yet, so I nodded.
“This one’s the hundredth of the batch, so I call it Cien.”
“Do you call the one right before it”—I searched my limited database of Spanish and found ‘ninety’ conspicuously missing—“uh, nueve-nueve?”
She laughed, a throaty, warm sound like freshly buttered toast. “You don’t need to know what I call the others, only this one. Cien is your only responsibility.”
The yellow notebook given to me when I left the building that night contained row after row of thick black lines, and I wondered how such a thing was supposed to help.
“Keep it healthy,” it said at the top of the first page. Everything else appeared censored.
It scared me nearly a year later with an incessant buzzing and the stench of bacon grease left idle. Fearing it might self-destruct like in an old spy movie or worse, bees, I flipped it open with a long pair of tongs.
Beneath the first admonition, where there had only been a black bar, were the words, “Prove it can learn.”
To whom am I supposed to prove it? I wondered. Are they watching me?
My superiors never responded to my emails.
There, dressed in flannel pajamas, fuzzy slippers, an apron, and armed with a hot pad and barbeque equipment, I pulled out my phone and sent them another one.
If they read it, they didn’t let me know.
I had never thought of myself as a teacher. In school, I preferred to work alone, and until the committee’s summons to the lab, I had been gleefully occupied in my corner cubicle, double checking formulas. Finding errors only validated the need for my position.
The child was a sponge, devouring all I could give. Phonics, arithmetic, vocabulary, history, biology, algebra, chemistry, literature, calculus, philosophy. Rarely did I have to explain a concept twice, and the more knowledge it gained, the easier it fit new pieces of the world together.
I stayed up all night researching so I could keep ahead or answer its questions.
I sent reports, amazed, enthralled, frustrated, but no one ever replied.
Years passed, and the notebook’s message remained the same. “Keep it healthy. Prove it can learn.”
So I fed it the packaged meals delivered to my doorstep each week. I taught it to play fetch, catch, then more complex sports. Through games, it learned to apply its studies to scenarios, to move smarter, not necessarily faster, than its opponents.
One didn’t have to take out every pawn, knight, and rook if one simply cornered the king.
The false stars still waited above. Could they see us? Did they fear this twisted creation molded from their DNA? Were they as monstrously beautiful?
The child looked mostly human aside from a few too-sharp angles. Its skin was albino with a wet, glossy appearance, stark against inky, shoulder-length hair.
Yet its true charm was in how it moved, like water, a stream. It wasn’t confined by gravity, instead using this ever-present force, repelling or attracting to augment its leaps.
When it fell, the spell that held me rapt broke, and I was reminded this was still a child, growing, adjusting, figuring out the definition of possible.
We sparred, me grateful for years of mixed martial arts training. I wondered if the committee had known of those night classes omitted in my resumé since they hadn’t seemed relevant for a cubical number cruncher.
I’d already corrected Cien’s stance twice this session, and again it stood too open, too forward, too close. The heel of my hand swooped in to punish the mistake, and those mesmerizing, russet eyes flicked to me, seeing the error too late and already wincing.
It’s just a child, I recalled, a seven-year-old not even a third my size.
I balked, hand slowing, and Cien dodged, spinning aside with a chuckle.
You know you can’t let it get away with that. Its skills won’t surpass yours if you always pull your punches.
We needed something stronger than me, stronger than us, to defeat the false stars if they ever attacked. That was this child’s purpose, something created from them to destroy them if the need ever arose.
What if that day came before Cien was ready because I didn’t push hard enough?
What if that day never came? What if we only created weapons we couldn’t control?
Sharp weight crashed into my spine, knocking me flat, followed by another giggle. “You’re not paying attention, Mr. Lane.”
“Why must I go to school?” Cien questioned as I parked in front of the brick cube that was the junior-high’s main campus.
“You have to learn to interact with others.” I pulled the yellow notebook from my briefcase in the backseat and placed it in the twelve-year-old’s lap, tapping the newest exposed line, the last on this page.
Cien stared down at it, gaze darting over the many mandates. “How do you know doing what the paper says is the right thing?”
Because you belong to those who wrote it, and you’re our best hope in the worst case.
But I had learned a teacher did not tell. A good teacher reasoned.
“Do you think what it has said thus far has been wrong?”
Cien shook its head, long hair fanning across its back. With it tied in a low ponytail and the school’s androgynous uniform draping Cien’s rail-thin frame, I saw equal amounts of feminine and masculine traits in this almost-teen. It was neither, but sometimes I wanted to see one or the other.
“If you skipped any of these steps, I would not exist,” it determined, eyes huge as they fixed on me. My heart fluttered like a flock of startled birds, but I had learned how not to fall into that gaze.
I concentrated on the sharp tips of the pupils, my own reflection impaled on them. “Is there something you think would work better than what the paper advises?”
With another shake of the head, Cien undid its seatbelt, passenger door clucking as it opened. “Can I keep the paper with me?”
Of course not, sat on the edge of my tongue, but as Cien hugged the yellow pad to its chest, I saw the faint tremor in its hands, and only, “Of course,” escaped.
Of course there was a fight.
I felt not a smidgen of pity for the boy wheeled away on a gurney. The other students’ testimony claimed he taunted Cien all day, striking it multiple times before Cien retaliated with a one-hit KO.
Unwise to upset an unsheathed weapon.
The worry surging through my gut was only magnified by the hissing crowd in the hallways as I made my way to the art room in the far back corner of the school. Cien had locked itself inside and knocked out anyone who came near.
This was the opposite of getting along with others. Had Cien lost all reason, all control? Would we have to fight?
Could I win?
The principal jiggled the locked handle, but his commentary sounded distant and distorted, like a deep whale song. When my fingers touched the door, it swung open. No light rained from the fixtures above. The sun barely dared to peek through closed blinds.
I wandered between leaning canvases, nose crinkling at the astringent smell.
“Cien?” I croaked, throat stinging. “I’m here for you.” I kept my stance wide and hips bent, ready.
Canvases fell like dominos, fortress walls crumbling. Behind them, rays streaming through a crooked shade shone upon pale skin, dark hair, and glittering bronze eyes. The navy jacket was torn at its shoulder and elbow, coral tie lopsided and frayed.
I knelt before this ethereal creature, crumpled papers crackling beneath my knees. The yellow notebook lay on its lap, held with reverence like a gospel by a saint.
“Cien, do you think it’s right to hurt so many people?”
Its gaze jumped to me, glossier than I had ever seen it. “They were annoying.”
“I didn’t ask why you did it, only if you thought it was right.”
My legs trembled in the silence, papers beneath whispering their fear. If this weapon decided we were not worth protecting, what would I have to do?
Its eyes caught the light and flashed. Vertical pupils convulsed, reminding me this wasn’t a simple child.
This was the hundredth imperfect copy of a captured alien soldier. And it was crying.
“They follow no logic,” it sobbed, and I sighed.
“When you cry like that, you look so very human.”
Cien’s long arms wrapped me in a hug. Warm tears seeped through my shirt. I was raising this thing that would one day be able to crush me, rip me apart, yet its embrace was so gentle, arms shaking, so scared.
A whisper wafted into my ears. “Would it be a bad thing if I wanted to be human?”
Yes, I thought. We need something stronger than a mere human.
The odor of old bacon grease permeated the square porch as I stepped out the door. It latched behind me with a subtle click, but Cien gave no response to the sound, no greeting for me. Beyond my child’s motionless silhouette, the tired sun sunk beneath a crown of ruby clouds and false stars filled the sky like spilled rhinestones.
Tomorrow’s sunrise would mark eighteen years with Cien at my side.
This beautiful, lithe creature faced the west, arid breeze tugging at light, loose fabric and unable to lift the thick braid cast over one shoulder. The yellow tablet rested in its large hands, and a hot spark of curiosity pushed me forward, nibbling at the rope of dread that held me in place.
What did the last line on the last page say?
Cien’s posture possessed a rigidity rare for this nimble being. My heart clenched. Bad news. Something Cien didn’t want to do, but what?
Eighteen. How many young men had gone off to war at the same age? How many of them never returned?
I wasn’t ready to let this child go. Maybe if the false stars had done anything other than hover, if they destroyed cities, stole precious resources, or kidnapped citizens, I might have seen the need, the urgency. Was I selfish? Yes. I would have admitted that if it meant I could have kept Cien a little longer.
Brown eyes turned to me, squinting as they scoured my expression. I stood straighter and smoothed out my face, trying to appear stronger than I was.
“Do you think it’s right?” My voice cracked.
Cien shook its head. “I don’t want it to be.”
I swallowed. “Do your wants outweigh the needs of the world?”
Its chin tilted. “It says, ‘Destroy Lane and return to headquarters.’”
I tried to swallow again, but my mouth was dry.
“It can be interpreted in many ways,” Cien said quickly, notebook dropped beneath rushed steps. I stumbled back, avoiding those eager hands, heart strangled in my throat.
My, “How?” escaped as a squeal. I had raised this warrior to be stronger than me in every way. I wouldn’t have stood a chance now, even if I had wanted to fight.
“We could destroy your identity, go on the run.”
Vision blurring, I realized this was a final test. I was not strong enough to let Cien go, but was it strong enough to let me go? Would the selfishness planted in this child’s heart by my example flourish? Or was Cien stronger than even that?
“Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one,” I whispered through a sob.
Firm arms encircled me, and I felt their tremors, the quickening of Cien’s heart beneath its ribs.
“It’s okay,” it assured me. “I’ll take care of everything.”
A sharp rap met the back of my neck, and the world faded.
One More Scar
Only one strand of the threefold cord remains intact, taut with my weight. It creaks as it slowly unwinds, and my view of the waves turns.
The rope around my wrists itches. I can’t feel my hands. My last breath burns.
The crowd murmurs, restless, anxious for something to happen. The blood dripping down my neck isn’t enough for them. They can’t feel its sting, hear its gush, or taste its metallic tang. Arrows wink in the slanted sunlight and whisper there is no escape. The crowd wants me to beg for those. They crave tears and screams, blubbering words that fail to express how sorry I am, but they will never know my true regret.
A hanged man keeps his secrets.
My legs twitch, adjusting my position so I can steal a glance at Unmei. Sunrise paints a pink glaze over the glitter of his hair but can’t touch the blue of his eyes. Do mine look the same, hard and sharp as a sword and glossed with pain?
Look at me, Friend. See the truth I cannot tell them.
The unraveling cord reflects in his glassy gaze. He’s not here in the present. He sees another rope as the last thread snapped and a raven-haired girl plunged. Can he still feel the heft of the coarse hemp as it tore at our palms? The weightlessness, hopelessness as we both fell backward, as we scrambled to the edge and watched Kichi shrink in the distance.
I kick again, trying to keep from turning away from him, and his sightline drops to me, to the heavy irons jingling at my ankles.
Meet my gaze one last time, Unmei. I wish I could scream. Listen to the words I can’t say.
His eyes lift to my face, but without understanding, only sadness and rage.
I should have told him as soon as she fell, the only moment we had alone, where I wouldn’t be overheard.
Your sister asked me to give her to the ravine.
Her azure eyes shone with stubbornness as she thanked me for reporting the trap complete. “Now I will never be the property of that disgusting duke.”
“Until you step on that bridge, you can still change your mind. ’Tis a frightful thing we’ve planned.”
“I am courageous, Jōzu. Are you?”
Against my will, my back faces Unmei, and there is no one in this direction I wish to see, especially not our noble lord. I close my eyes and listen to the hum of the wind, the calls of the spectating birds, and most importantly, the groaning rope. Will it break soon? I’ll have an instant to draw a breath before water swallows me.
Our lord laughs. ’Tis like a file against my teeth. His daughter is believed dead, her body turned to dust when she struck the ground, nothing left for honorable internment, yet he laughs.
Don’t think of him. He slaughters your patience, and your timing must be perfect.
On the inside of my eyelids, Kichi steps onto the narrow suspension bridge. As the supports fray and the planks drop, she hovers for an instant, whirling to give me a grin, white knuckles strangling the loose rope.
I didn’t expect Unmei to dive for it, to refuse to let go as the weight of the bridge dragged him to the edge. I grabbed it, too.
The sun caresses my face, and I reopen my eyes. Unmei stands within my sight again.
He swallows as our eyes meet. “Say something in your defense. Please! ’Tis not too late.”
He has said that at least twenty times since yesterday when they made him testify against me.
“Could Jōzu have saved her?”
Dead, distant eyes looked past me. He didn’t want to say, but their serums gave him no choice.
“His Affinity is Wind. He could have called upon it to catch her.”
“Jōzu is the child of a maid, and the Affinities of servants are weak. Would Wind have taken such an arduous mandate from him?”
“He never uses it, but testing stones claim his influence is strong.”
A judge leaned closer, blocking our sight of one another. “Why would you present a servant’s blood to testing stones?”
“To see if he could be a suitable rival.”
They called for more stones, slit my palms, and wrapped the pebbles in my grasp. With such a strong Affinity for Wind, they said, I should be able to command hurricanes. Why am I not a feared warrior, a general of vast armies? What is a servant to do with this awesome power?
I remained silent. I showed them nothing.
My Affinity is not Wind like my mother’s, barely able to summon a breeze to cool her sweating brow. My true Affinity would raise the wrong questions.
Now I hang for not using power I do not have.
I’m sorry, Unmei. If any plan could have spared you, I’d have chosen it.
The rope concedes, and salty air rushes into my lungs. For a moment, I feel I could call upon Wind to carry me. Then the ocean beats that notion aside. My legs sting with its reprimand, and fire churns in my nose as the sun becomes a distorted flicker.
A chill seeps into my bones, and something even colder wraps me, soft as a mother’s goodnight kiss, limber as molten iron, and harder than steel. A second arm encircles me, then a third, dragging me deeper. Panic stokes the fire within, but still I wait.
Serrated suckers hook into my skin, and I flinch. Much of my captured breath escapes in a parade of bubbles. Krakens have an embrace like daggers. ’Tis why I ensured the bait for today would lure this creature, why I weakened the rope so it would fail. They’ll think me eaten and not look too hard for my body.
Yet, that book knowledge did not lead me to imagine it would feel like the prick of a hundred bees.
I clench my jaw and puff my cheeks, swallowing a scream as I deliberately move my arms and legs to saw off my bonds. Even the metal chains are sliced like paper, rattling as they sink into darkness.
Now I am deep enough.
I call to the energy within. ’Tis sluggish, groggy, unfamiliar, but it slithers to the surface, curious of my voice. Every vein glows, flashing with lightning as blue as my eyes. It feeds on my fear, a warhorse pounding the ground, begging to charge forth, and I am hard pressed to hold it back.
It ekes between my fingers, and shimmies over my whole body. It jumps and stabs at anything that touches me.
The kraken jolts, grip tightening, then fleeing. My lightning wants to chase the beast, but I hold its reins, keep it quiet. The water fizzes as I draw the energy back in, and a few more flashes pierce the darkness. Can Unmei and his lordly father sense the use of their Affinity so near?
My lungs shrivel into prunes as I swim deeper and slip through a passage that has never seen the sun. Its jewel-like walls blink at my bursts of light. The fish hide. I’m in too much of a hurry to avoid disturbing their refuges. Mud and detritus roil in my wake.
Finally, the surface breaks over my face, and I gulp air, choking on it as I drag my heavy body onto shore. A waterfall giggles behind me, and the pond laps at needle-covered sand. Pine and wintergreen fill my nostrils and loiter on my tongue. I lie there, panting, forehead on my arms.
A twig snaps, and I look up. Kichi pauses, chagrin in the twist of her rosy lips. The rest of her face hides in the shadow of a cowl.
“Congratulations, we’re both dead,” she greets, kneeling alongside me. “You look terrible.”
“I always look terrible.” I rise, knees shaking and dark hair plastered to my face. An arm swiping across my brow only halfway remedies this. A murder of crows drapes a dry cloak over me before perching on Kichi. Her Affinity might become a problem if I have to fight her.
I walk, cloak billowing behind me, and she trots to keep up.
“You’re free, Kichi. You could go anywhere. You don’t have to follow me.”
“You have proven the mettle of your heart. I trust you.”
You shouldn’t, Little Sister.
If I don’t bring her, the plan will fail.
If the plan fails, Unmei will live.
If the plan fails, our lordly father will live.
If the plan fails, I will die.
I keep walking.
“You’re bleeding.” Kichi points at my neck. The birds seem way too interested.
I wipe a wet sleeve under my chin. “So what else is new.”
“It is deep. If you do not treat it, it will scar.”
I stare straight ahead, unable to face those azure eyes exactly like mine. “What’s one more scar?”
Thank you for reading!
This is part 1 of 3. Together, the titles form a phrase:
One More Scar
Beneath My Skin
Etched Upon This Heart I Hold
Link to Beneath My Skin: https://theprose.com/post/428337/beneath-my-skin
This tale is set in a fictional, unnamed mountain range. While the story is told in English, the characters are named in Japanese, and each is an allegory of their name’s meaning. Here is a list of the characters, the ideographic writing of their name, and an approximate English translation.
Jōzu | 上手 | Skill
Kichi | 吉 | Luck
Unmei | 運命 | Destiny
Doth the Sun Envy Thee
“It’s really not that important,” Genevieve told her uncle, but he insisted. Now here she was at the place where he swept the floors and polished the glass, the Gallery of Exotica Regained.
It was a place for a certain kind of art.
“Wander around, Gen. Find your muse,” her uncle advised. “If you stare at the wall all day, you’ll never finish that poem you have due tomorrow.”
Finish? I haven’t even started it.
How was this supposed to help? She didn’t want to write about animals in cages.
Maybe if she closed her eyes, if she didn’t see the walls or bars, she could find inspiration in the sounds. A hoof clacked against a wooden deck, and Genevieve pictured a horse trotting beneath her as they crossed a bridge, a castle town behind them as they set out on an adventure.
Hmmm, what rhymes with adventure?
A bird squawked, and she saw herself in a jungle, waves of heat from an erupting volcano lashing at her cheeks.
“Whoa, hold up!” an unfamiliar voice called. Hands grasped her shoulders, stopping her, and Genevieve’s eyes flew open to a wall of flame that stole her breath.
She leapt back, guided by the grip on her collarbone.
“It’s a bad idea to walk around here with your eyes closed and an even worse idea to get too close to the phoenix cage. He has personal space issues.”
The bird bobbed his head as if agreeing, back turned and wings spread. Could his flames melt the silver bars of his cage?
“Name's Jules, like Jules Verne,” the stranger said, and she finally looked at him.
“Genevieve,” she whispered. He didn’t seem much older than her, a year maybe. Probably already graduated and lucky enough not to have homework anymore.
“I see you’ve got a notebook, Genevieve. Are you a writer?”
Was I staring? Yes, stop that; he’ll think you’re weird.
But those eyes, they’re like the sky just as the sun disappears. And that crooked smile is so cute. I could write my poem about him!
No, no, that would definitely be weird.
Genevieve tucked a loose lock of curly hair behind her ear. “No, I’m not really a writer. I’m just trying to do my homework assignment.” A horrid thought occurred to her, and she gasped. “You’re not really Jules Verne, are you? Like, a creepy recreation of him?”
He laughed. “They haven’t created anything sapient here yet.”
She gulped. “Yet? Are they trying?” Was it right to try to create intelligent life?
Jules shrugged. “They’re striving for perfection in their craft, and I think that will result in a form of sapience eventually. That’s why I’m here.”
Oh that grin is going to melt me faster than the phoenix’s wings ever could. She fixed her face, trying to look attentive but not too attentive.
“You come here a lot?”
“You could say that.”
“Often enough to be a good guide? I’m supposed to find something that can be my muse.” She looked up at him through her lashes, nervous he would say yes, afraid he would say no.
Instead, a neigh answered her.
“No, Tempesta, I didn’t forget you,” Jules called, fishing a baggie of the feed sold at the front entrance from his pocket. The smell of seaweed filled the air as he opened it and offered the treat to a small, slender horse standing at the edge of her pin.
She wasn’t just a horse, Genevieve realized upon a second glance. She had wings with soft white feathers. These covered most of her body, flowing into a deep gray with blanched spots like snowflakes.
Tempesta stomped her foot as she downed the last pellet in the bag.
“Hey, you know I’d love to give you more, but your nutritionist would have my hide,” Jules chuckled, patting her forehead.
Genevieve stepped up next to him. “Um, is she a pegasus? Can she really fly?”
“Yes, and who knows? She’s still just a filly.” With one last pat, he crumpled the baggie and returned it to his pocket. “She’s the first one they’ve had that lived beyond six months.”
Genevieve frowned. It was sad, and she didn’t want to think too hard about it.
She followed Jules, not really listening to him, just reveling in the sound of his voice as he pointed out this or that.
I really should just write my poem about him.
Should I ask his permission first?
Her gut twisted.
What’s the worst that could happen, really? He’ll say no? He’ll call me a freak and walk away? He’ll make a post about me on social media, but no one I know will ever see it…probably.
She bit her lip and looked up at his back, but over his shoulder gold caught her eye and refused to let go.
It was a fish. No, not exactly. The creature beyond the glass wall and dancing with a horde of bubbles had the figure of a woman, legs fused together, golden scales climbing from what would have been her toes to above her breast, like an off the shoulder gown. She swam in sweeping figure eights, tail fin long and flowing like a beta’s. Two similar fins extended from her back like wings, a transparent, fiery shimmer.
A line immediately jumped into Genevieve’s head: Doth the sun envy thou?
She plopped down on a bench and wrote it. Jules peered over her shoulder, eyebrows raised, and she pulled the notebook to her chest, warmth coloring her cheeks.
“W-what is she?” Genevieve’s face darkened further. She meant to get Jules’ attention off her notebook, but the question was stupid. Obviously this was a mermaid.
But Jules didn’t look down at her in pity or amusement. He didn’t scoff or tell her she was dumb, and Genevieve sat a little straighter as he sat next to her, both their gazes on the creature in the tank.
“She is the Koi Maiden,” he explained, “and she is the Lead Artist’s masterpiece. The Lead Artist has painted some of humanity’s wildest and most gorgeous imaginings, but this is the one she’s most proud of.”
“Her chosen medium is genetics, but they prefer to use art terms here so people forget these pieces are living animals. They don’t just look alive. They are alive, but as long as you don’t think too hard about that, it’s okay. It’s just art.”
Art. Living poetry. Was it fair that one living being could hold such beauty? Genevieve reached for words to describe the sight: scales imbued with drops of sunlight, eyes wide, molten stars burning somewhere between gold and red.
The Koi Maiden smiled as bubbles tickled her, lips puffy. Genevieve’s own reflection stared back at her in the glass, faint and chiding. She tried to pucker her own lips to match the gorgeous creature’s, but she looked silly. She was nowhere near as beautiful: thin lips and dark, freckled skin, eyes that people assumed were closed most of the time. What if she got colored contacts, if people could see her irises burning like that? They would know she was awake, looking at them. Would they see her then?
Her notebook fell from her chest, her pen going to the paper.
“Why the Old English?”
Jules. He was still here.
Genevieve turned to him languidly, trying to pretend her heart hadn’t just transformed into a forge. “Doesn’t it sound more poetic? I’m supposed to write a poem.”
“Any kind of poem?”
“Yeah, but I’m not very good at it.”
He leaned closer, raising a brow at her one, pitiful line.
I’d even take beauty like his. It’d be better than what I’ve got now.
“Maybe you’re trying too hard to force a voice that isn’t yours.”
She grimaced. “What do you mean?”
“Do you normally go around using thee and thou?”
She scrunched her face and stared. What did he take her for?
Jules put up his hands. “Some dialects still do, and the words aren’t quite as they were with their original usage. You’re free to write however you want. A poem is supposed to be your soul poured onto the page.”
How very poetic. Maybe she could steal that line? Should she write a poem about poetry?
He pointed to the last word she had written. “Thou was the subject of a sentence, and thee was the object. Like when you say I did this, but this was done to me. Thou did this, but this was done to thee.”
“What are you, some kind of English teacher?”
“I’m a linguist. When one of these creations begins to ‘talk,’ I’m going to be the first to communicate with it.”
“That’s…a very interesting goal.”
Genevieve turned back to the tank. The mermaid stared at her, inferno eyes like fingers brushing along Genevieve’s arms, beckoning her closer.
“Can she see us?”
“As easily as we can see her.”
“It’s like she wants us to come closer.”
Jules stood. “Then let’s do it.”
But Genevieve didn’t move. Her stomach churned, and no commands reached her legs. Jules took one step, and the Koi Maiden dashed off, ducking behind a rainbow-colored rock on the other side of the tank.
“Too bad,” Jules sighed. “Well, I’ll leave you to your muse. If you come up with something good, you’ll show it to me, right?”
At Genevieve’s subtle nod, he walked into the tunnel leading to the next room, his echoing footsteps a beat to which she situated her pencil on the paper and wrote slowly, scrabbling for words to describe her thoughts, trudging them from the far, muddy corners of her brain.
Doth the sun envy thee
How thou stole its splendor
Who painted its light within thy scales
And sealed its glow beneath skin so tender
She read back over the words again and again, trying to figure out what should come next. Her neck twinged, and she looked up, rubbing her nape.
The Koi Maiden was there, scorching eyes branding her again. Genevieve rose, notebook held loose in a limp arm at her side, the other lifting to touch the glass.
“How I wish I could be you,” the human girl whispered.
The Koi Maiden tilted her head, webbed hand rising, its differences made all the more plain—clawed thumb, ring finger longest—as she placed it against Genevieve’s.
~I envy you.~
Genevieve stumbled back. The sentiment hadn’t been spoken. It wasn’t a sound or a thought, but something Genevieve felt shake in her bones. She squinted at the maiden, those puffy lips in a pout, round eyes slightly downturned. As if their hands were linked by invisible strings, Genevieve was reeled back to the glass.
~I envy you.~
“Why would you envy me? You’re so beautiful.”
The Koi Maiden tilted her head again, filament hair flowing with the movement. ~I am how they designed me to be. You are beautiful by the grace of chance.~
Genevieve blushed. “If I could look like you, though, I would.”
~You would stay here forever?~ Her tail flicked, somehow reminding Genevieve of a cat.
“What do you mean?”
~Those like you leave and return, which means there is a bigger world for you to wander.~
Genevieve’s eyes roamed the tank. It was large, integrated into several gallery rooms, an artwork on its own with corals and rocks that might as well be jewels. Alcoves waited to be explored, bubbles invited one to dance, and everything had a sparkly, gilded sheen. But would she want to live here? Forever?
This was nothing compared to the real world and its wonders. Mt. Fuji, Victoria Falls, the Grand Canyon. This fish girl would never see them.
Her flush deepened as she realized this creature also got zero privacy.
~Would you really switch places with me?~
Genevieve ripped away, breaths heavy. Yes, she wanted to be that gorgeous, but to give up her freedom, her humanity?
She saw the strings tying them together, towing her back to the glass, the temptation. She desired that beauty, but did she really want what all would come with it?
She tried to tear away again, but the strings gave her no leeway. She was trapped, eyes widened, staring into a fire burning under the water.
The notebook dropped with a loud, jarring sound, and the dark, freckled girl blinked, gaze falling to it. She didn’t look at the Koi Maiden again. Scooping up her notebook, she ran.
The next morning, the poem she turned in read:
Doth the sun envy thee
How thou stole its splendor
Who painted its light within thy scales
And sealed its glow beneath skin so tender
They know not to look into thy molten eyes
Ringing with a smith’s blow
For that is how thou draw them in
And never let them go
White glistens like the surface of the moon as far as I can see in all directions. No hills or valleys delineate space; flatness stretches to infinity. I could walk forever and still never leave.
For a time, I do walk. Am I getting anywhere? Everything’s still the same. Where is this place? Why am I here? And how?
What did I do last? Sleep. After a long, busy day, I put on my comfy-but-ugly pajamas and slipped between my sheets. I assume my head hit the pillow. I was out before it did.
Is this a dream?
It doesn’t feel like a dream. What is a dream supposed to feel like?
I don’t know, but not this. As if I am at the end of a pendulum, both light and heavy, falling and flying. It’s hard to breathe, but the gurgling burn in my lungs seems distant.
How long have I walked? If my asthma’s kicking up, perhaps I should sit. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a chair?
An armchair appears, dense, dark planks set in rigid angles rising from the white as if launched through powdered snow.
Can this place hear my thoughts? Does it exist to fulfill my wishes? How convenient.
I think of a different seat, and the single piece of furniture transforms, growing plush blue cushions and a handle to toggle it to recline.
How suspicious. I’ve read enough dystopia to know that too-perfect things only mask equal amounts of too-harsh oppression. Now that I’ve discovered the good, how long will it take me to find the evil here?
“Hours.” A man appears as if stepping out of mist. He wears green scrubs and a white coat. It’s not the same white as everything else, duller, less sparkly.
I don’t like the idea of him being able to read my mind, too. “It’ll only take me hours to find what’s wrong with this place?”
“You only have hours left. To do anything.”
“You mean”—I meet his gaze. It is like the sky on a day where the sun decided not to be ignored—“I have only hours to live. I’m about to die. How can you know that?”
“Your body knows it. Think of me as your subconscious.”
My subconscious is a doctor. Nothing weird about that. Though I probably would have gotten farther in life being a main-conscious doctor with a subconscious artist.
“Might my body be wrong? Might it be lying?”
“You can’t breathe. Can you hear your heart?”
Yes. Like war drums.
“No matter how hard it pumps, blood without oxygen is worthless. Your organs are shutting down. This space inside your mind will be the last to go, but as I said, you have only hours. This is my last gift to you, all I can give.” His eyes flash in challenge. “So what will you do?”
All my unfinished projects cascade before my eyes, creations that will never see completion now. Not unless—
“Nothing you do here will affect the outside world.”
“That’s not fair!” Hot, sticky tears dribble down my cheeks. How cliché to cry when death is imminent. I don’t want to be cliché.
My tears heed the wish and rise instead of fall. Like a halo of stars, they sparkle around my head.
“Not fair? You can do anything, no consequences. Every dream can come true, everything playing out just as you want it. Is that not a blessing?”
“But if it’s not real, what good’ll it do? It’ll just end!”
“So you’ll waste it just because it won’t last as long as you’d like?”
I glare at him. I have hours. Precious hours. Rather than count them, I should make them count. How, though? What should I do?
What would you do?
If you’re here experiencing this with me, are you any more real than the chair I conjured? Will you die with me when our hours are up?
Then I guess what I should ask is: What will you do?
There is something so alluring about a blank page. The mystery of what could be. The question of what was once but has been erased.
I think it is some combination of the two that draws my gaze toward Ruben and his gang as they hustle through the double glass doors across from my reception desk. They come every Friday, but still their eyes glaze with virgin awe as they study the posters on the walls.
With a polite smile, I wait. Legally, I cannot recommend a thrill unless directly asked. Either the ads will do their jobs in silence or someone will eventually beckon me to speak.
The slap of hard plastic against harder wood threatens to make me flinch as the leader slams a stack of money notes down on my desk.
I win, motionless save for a blink and a slow smile. “Careful or you’ll start an avalanche.”
He laughs. “What’s on sale this week?”
“We’ll take that.”
I knew they would. They always take the featured sale. The question is if they know that.
“Sign the waivers and proceed down the hall, please,” I instruct. “Exit the fourth door on the left. Next plane leaves in fifteen minutes.”
Sometimes the herd charges like bulls through the streets of San Fermin. Today they scurry behind their leader single-file like lost ants. Either way, their mouths hang open as if that frees their eyes to wander further.
And, as has happened on a few occasions, Rubin lingers.
“Freesia,” he says.
Now I lose the jump-scare game and flinch at the sound of my name. Does he remember it?
No. He reads the badge pinned to my lapel.
“Nice name. Slides off the tongue.”
“It’s the name of a flower,” I deflect.
He leans on my desk, dark hair fanning across eyes adrift somewhere between brown and gold. “You’re not a flower.”
“Flowers are delicate.” His smirk is so crooked, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it has a summer and winter. “Today’s thrill, jumping out of a plane, you’ve done it before.”
It’s not a question, so I don’t answer, instead staring at the broad plateaus and acute angles of his face. At the faint shadows beneath his eyes. At the slight tremble to his lips.
Do ones like him worry?
“A flower wouldn’t survive jumping out of a plane. Flowers prefer their roots in the ground.”
I return his smirk, peering over the top of my slender spectacles. “What am I, then?”
He shrugs. “First impression?”
I nearly flinch again. First impression. As if this is the first he has spoken to me. As if the other forty-two times never happened.
To him, they didn’t.
“I’d call you Falcon,” he proclaims with a knee-melting grin, pivoting even further over my desk. His bangs nearly touch my forehead. “Will you be working here tomorrow?”
“Money’s scarce for many these days. My family would disown me if I worked anything less than every hour I am awake and a few when I’m not.”
He laughs, but I’m not entirely joking.
“Can I bring you dinner here tomorrow around this same time?”
“Ruben, hurry up!” the leader calls from down the hall, and as if on a tether, he slinks away, trudging backward.
I nod as he disappears, blessed with that heart-stopping grin one more time.
“Wish me luck.” His words echo, disembodied and light, strained of the fear they reveal. “This is my first time on a thrill. Hopefully I don’t epically mess up and get everyone killed.”
That’s a lie. Sky diving has been the special for over a month now. They went last week and several times before that.
But it isn’t an intentional lie. Ruben just doesn’t remember.
I know what Ruben is. I know why he is a blank slate every time I see him. Any expectation beyond that is foolishness.
Yet, I find it harder to sit still and wear my mask on Saturday. The appointed time draws near, and I wait, stomach full of fireworks. An hour later, I still wait. Two hours fold into four, then six, and my shift ends. A part of me lingers, wondering if I loiter a moment longer, will I see Ruben rush through those glass doors?
But they show only my tired reflection.
Sunday, I cling to a shard of hope. Monday, it is a sliver stuck within my heart, cutting deeper with each beat.
I shouldn’t let it affect me. I should know better. I know he sells his memories. It’s why the gang comes here, to get memories worth selling, dangerous experiences rich men want without the risk.
A memory copied is equal to a fake. Because buyers insist an experience must be theirs alone, sellers erase the originals. Blankers like Ruben do not remember yesterday.
Friday cues the return of Ruben and his crew. He’s forgotten me. Again. His amber eyes light up when they meet mine as if for the first time. There is no recognition, only interest.
My stomach is made of stones grinding against one another. Scorched by my anger, my mask falters. My smile is not as polite as is proper for a good employee.
As they purchase the featured shark encounter and charge down the hall, I tell myself this rage has no bearing. I know Ruben sells his memories. It is who and what he is. He doesn’t try to hide it. I shouldn’t expect him to remember me tomorrow, next week, or ever.
My eyes burn, and I wallow in a blink. I know why he does it. Money is hard to come by for those who don’t already have it, and memories are lucrative. My family has sold some. My brother remembered his first steps, and those went for a fortune he uses to pay for his education.
I’ve considered doing the same. The thought lurks in the crannies of my mind, searching for a piece of my childhood I could give away, I could trade to buy myself out of this life.
But the thought is not meant for the light. If I dwell on it for too long, the spotlight of my attention transforms hope into the claws of fear. What if losing just one memory would change who I am?
I can jump out of a plane or play with a lion, but I’m too much of a coward to let machines poke around in my head.
Wet warmth trails down my cheek. I open my eyes. Ruben is still here, leaning on my desk. I am a mouse, small and wishing to be invisible.
As if he doesn’t know. He doesn’t. But he should. He would.
I am a viper curled in a chair. I am powerful, full of fire, fast. “The way you look at me every time you come in here, I didn’t think it would mean so little to you, that you would sell the memory of asking me out.”
His face scrunches. “I’ve never sold my memories.”
I see no lie in his lax posture, in the crooked set of his shoulders, the tightness of his jaw, or the depth of his gaze. Yet I know it is a falsehood. He doesn’t. How can he not know? Did he even sell the memories of him selling his memories?
No, those don’t sell.
I exhale through my nose and feel like a dragon breathing fire. “How did you get that?” I point to a narrow, jagged scar that runs between his thumb and pinky. I know its tale. I doubt he does.
His crooked smile falls. His brows meet and form a squiggly line.
“Ruben, get over here! The transport is leaving!” the leader calls, and Ruben heeds the tether of his words.
But his gaze doesn’t leave his hand.
I don’t know what to think of what I did. It was very unprofessional. Ruben probably won’t remember anyway, but I will. Why does that bug me? Why does it feel wrong that I have memories of him that he doesn’t have of himself?
It’s going to be a long week if I can’t cage these wild thoughts. Already, this Saturday feels a year long.
The doors crash open. I stand to address the hooligan who dares disrespect the space of our business, ready to point at the “no running” sign. But my chair barely has time to creak in protest of my absence before the charging silhouette takes on the colors and shapes of a face I have spent too much time dwelling on.
“I ran.” Tears streak his ruddy cheeks, fallen from wide, bloodshot eyes. “It didn’t seem right, the tubes leading into my bed. I asked what they were for.”
I tilt my head. “What did they tell you?”
“Nothing that made any sense. So I tried to leave, and they wouldn’t let me.”
That really doesn’t make any sense. Memories are sold on a voluntary basis. Donors frequently chicken out. It’s illegal to forcibly take another’s possessions, even a memory. Especially a memory.
I meet his dark gaze. It glows with something I can’t define, like a dying sun, umbra bubbling over light. He leans over the counter, arms collapsed beneath him, like the cold, polished wood is all that holds him up.
“Are you saying someone has been stealing your memories, Ruben?”
Very slowly, he nods and stands straighter. My belief is a crutch, something to cling to.
“I’ve been thinking. How did I get to be as old as I am, as big as I am? People are supposed to grow, right? But as far as I know, I have no past. I only know three people: myself, the leader, and…you.”
“Me?” I squawk. “You don’t even know me.”
My words are a knife. I see that too late. He deflates a little.
I don’t have time to take it back. The doors fling open again. Ruben dives over my desk as his name reverberates off the poster-laden walls. The glass frames shake as if in fear of the anger in that bellow.
“Sir,” I start in my sternest voice. My knee nudges the trembling man at my feet beneath the counter. “I do not know what argument you may be trying to continue, but this is a serious place of business. Maintain a respectful tone and volume or I will summon the authorities.”
“I know he’s here. The tracker says so.”
My heart slides to my toes. There isn’t room to spare for it in my narrow, pointed shoes.
“Ruben, stop hiding by the lady’s feet or I will call the authorities.”
“I don’t think you will,” I counter. “Thieves, wise ones anyway, avoid those who would punish them.”
“Thieves,” he sneers. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s illegal to force someone to give up their memories. It’s a gray area even to coerce one into doing so.”
“Memories. Listen”—he leans over my counter. Huge, well-manicured hands curl around the inside edge of the desk, just above Ruben’s head—“none of those memories belonged to Ruben anyway. Every single one was a situation I contrived, like how I bought these thrills. I paid for them. They’re mine to do with what I will.”
“Not as defined by law. Ruben has rights—”
“Ruben is no one. He’s been a conduit for my business since he was an infant, and I don’t need some floozy telling me how to make my money.”
Since he was an infant. The words echo in my mind. Childhood memories can be sold as an adult, and these are expensive, but…
“Only monsters sell the memories of children,” I whisper.
“You know what, I’m gonna make all this go away.” His massive hand slides into his pocket and pulls out a clear, bubble-filled box. A memory cube. And a port to go with it.
It glows as he attaches the cord to the top and points the other end toward me. A plethora of syringes wink in the canned lighting.
On this Saturday afternoon, I do the most unprofessional thing I have ever done. I leap on a loyal client. My pencil skirt rips. One of my shoes flies and cracks a poster. As its pieces fall to the floor, I kick and scratch and roll with this monster.
When we stop, he is on top, both my wrists pinned, my hips trapped between his thighs. The needles are a hairsbreadth from my skin when breaking glass screams again. It rains around me as the monster falls to the side.
Ruben takes his place in my sightline. His own gaze is glued to his leader, the man he just hit over the head with a poster to save me. Heedless of the shards digging into his shins, Ruben sinks to his knees. He is a statue, not even breathing. I don’t look, but in my peripherals there is a lot of red and no motion.
My heart goes out to Ruben. He is a puzzle made of many missing pieces. Now the largest piece shows him killing the only person he knows. What must he think of himself?
I see the blank page filling, and I don’t like what’s written. I want to write something better.
And I can.
I grab the memory cube from the floor alongside the fallen leader. Ruben’s chocolate gaze flicks to me as the syringes leap into my skin. It doesn’t hurt as much as I thought it would.
My thumbs run over transient buttons on the cube’s top, finding the memory I want him to have. The first time I met him. How I envied his easy-going nature, his sideways grin. How I wished my hair could be as sun-kissed.
The box clicks, containing something I wish to give Ruben, but I no longer remember what it is.
Am I a villain?
My flute cracks over my knee, and what is left of my heart shatters as if they are one. With the sound of breaking glass, my legs collapse. As my knuckles hit the hard dirt, thunder crawls up from the ground, trying to shake the pipe’s fragments free from my grasp, but my fists refuse to unfurl.
In either hand, the two largest remnants of my flute resemble daggers. Realizing this—that even broken it is still a weapon—is what finally makes me let go.
As the jagged-edged cylinders roll away, tears drench my face, incongruous with the laughing image trapped in my mind.
Barak will never laugh again, and it’s my fault.
I will never play again.
You have to get up, Anastasia. They can’t find you here alongside him, not if you want to live.
I want to live. Death, especially death without a Soul Singer, is a scary thing.
I’m on my feet. My skirt snaps like a flag in the wind, trailing behind as my footfalls count a beat in sixteenth notes.
I don’t make it far.
Men form a wall at the village gate. Because they know I’m a villain?
They are foreigners, bedecked in plated armor that clicks offbeat. Crests of the royal capital adorn their weapons and capes. They are cowards, every one, as bespoken by their heart songs.
“Anastasia has excellent hearing,” our village chief says with a nervous chuckle. “You asked for our Soul Singer, and here she is.”
I step backward, but the mud grabs my heels. They surround me, too loud, too clashing.
Tension dwells in music. Like in a good story, it leads the ear with patterns. It adds interest by subverting expectations. Also like in a story, there is a fine line between exploiting the unexpected and devolving into chaotic nonsense no one wants to hear.
This cacophony is the latter. I reach for my flute. I can fight this disorder. I can sweep it into something of beauty. But the loops of silk ribbon at my hip hang loose and empty.
I shouldn’t attempt to play any part of these men’s heart songs lest Barak’s fate fall upon them as well. My flute is broken.
And so is my heart.
The smiles of the dying haunt my vision as the shackles on my ankles and neck cackle at my every breath. They cannot drown out the ethereal sounds that bounce between this antechamber’s thin pillars. Twelve men. Twelve agendas, lives, hopes, and dreams. Twelve heart songs. The only thing they have in common is their trembling vibrato.
The light streaming through a stained-glass ceiling reveals only eight guards and one steward. Where are the other three? There is no place to hide, not unless their skin can blend with pale green stone. Two corridors skulk in darkness on either side of an ornate chair, but they appear empty.
Despite his lanky, teetering form, the steward is the bravest. He stands closest, within an arm’s reach, if I could lift my arms. The guards force me to my knees by pulling my chains through a ring in the floor.
I don’t kill with my hands, you dimwits. I wish I didn’t kill at all.
“I do not believe in Soul Singers,” the steward claims, “but I need this to work.”
“It doesn’t work, not how you think,” I shrill. My voice clashes with the diminutive, low chords of his song. These tug at me, wishing to be heard aloud. If I listen, if I release them, will this problem go away?
“I know the stories,” he croons.
“Then the stories are wrong. I’ve told you, one who hears their heart song will die.” The crack of my shattered flute recycles in my head, a constant reminder.
“We’re here to test that,” the steward insists. His fingers snap on beat with the castanets of his song.
More chains rattle in response, and the missing men emerge from the hallway to the throne’s right, two guards with a bound prisoner between them.
“You will perform for him, and we will see if he is healed like the stories say or, as you claim, he dies.”
My gaze locks with the prisoner’s as they push him to his knees, close enough the ragged hem of his apron brushes my stained skirt. I hardly hear the clack of his bare ankles against the stone. His song shimmies across my flesh and sinks into my bones.
I never let anyone this near.
As the steward leans over me, his melody tries to take over. The songs are competing shouts in unknown languages; his is louder but no more convincing.
Unfortunately, I do understand his words. “Go on. If you do not play his heart song, I will ensure you die.”
I am not brave enough to face my end, not without another Soul Singer to release my song.
The prisoner looks at me through watery, swollen eyes. He does not see a woman with hair the color of coal and skin the shade of moonlight. He does not see the tears spilling from my gray-green eyes, though I do, reflected in the pupils that have swallowed his irises.
He sees a monster risen from his deepest nightmares, the kind of thing that has no form and cannot be described.
“It will kill him,” I whisper, throat tight. His melody is an ocean swishing within me. I dig my fingers into my thighs so as not to sway with its rolling trills.
The steward shrugs. “He is a criminal. He is sentenced to die anyway.”
“I am not an executioner.”
Careful. The more I speak, the more his chorus slips into my voice.
I have witnessed no trial. I do not know what they accuse him of, if he did it, and why. What I know is that this man lives in fear, every note overwhelmed by the elongated, quivering chime of a bell.
A pipe falls past my eyes, and my hands catch it without my permission, fingers splayed over familiar holes. It is a lost limb returned, a part of me that should never have been thrown away.
I am weak. The flute rises to my lips, and I cannot stop it. But I am not entirely a puppet tossed by the waves of what I hear. From deep within, I scoop up an old melody stolen from the first man I watched die.
It starts slow, gentle bass notes sliding over icy hills. The beat scampers from behind them on weightless wings and nudges them faster with the sharp ticking of its beak. The notes stumble, rolling together, and leap, trapped in an echoic valley.
Painted on the backs of my eyelids, the man’s story flows from his childhood in the glacier-ridden north to the open sea. The sun warms the timbre of his song, salt thickening every pitch. Reversing couplets and triplets become water crashing from either side. My fingers fly faster, spinning the shriek of a thousand hurricanes.
Holding the illusion of life, the song beckons to the incomplete hearts hearing it. Now the tune will always be a part of them. Their unfinished songs swirl around me, finally aligned, yanking at my fingers to play them instead.
Doing so would mean plucking the strings of their souls. Their pain would vanish, their regret and anything that weighted their smiles.
You have a gift, my mentor said when she realized I, too, could hear the songs of other’s lives. You must never play what you hear unless that one is ready to leave this world. When the last note fades, they go with it, existing only in memory.
I should have listened.
My eyes dart between the men. The song holds them rapt and enthralled, but it does not belong to any of them. If there is no change in the prisoner, the steward will know I disobeyed, and he will summon Death to me.
I take the chimes of my target’s fear and weave them into the ballad of the old mariner. As I play, the prisoner grows stronger, spine no longer bent and cheeks no longer sunken. Bags fade from beneath his eyes. Bruises vanish.
Hopefully I haven’t taken too much.
Gradually, I evolve his line until it is no longer recognizable and work it into silence. His fear is released into the world, existing only in memory.
No longer suppressed, his bravery compels him to his feet. His chains jangle as he swings at his captors. Our captors.
Punch. Kick. Not wanting to see, I close my eyes, but I still hear the percussion their skirmish provides, everything on beat. Metal rings against metal, squealing as it scrapes. A gasp. A grunt. A scream.
Is this my fault, too? Another noose of guilt braids itself around my neck. I shrug it away.
I don’t want to hear, but my ears have no lids. Playing louder, I pretend the sounds of the dying man alongside me have always been part of the song.
“He died, just like I said he would.”
My chains rattle their agreement, muffled by the steward’s tight grip as he leads me up wending stairs.
“Your song healed him. It was what he chose to do with that renewed strength that got him killed. That will not be a problem this time.”
Because this time he wants me to play the heart song of a child not yet a year old. The boy is the only offspring of our king, and I am told he burns with invisible flames that cannot be quenched.
We enter a room of windows. They showcase the entire world, more valleys than I knew existed carpeted by stout trees. My village squats on a ridge at the edge of the horizon, little more than a speck in the distance as this castle once was to me.
The sun is not shy here like the skittish shadows hiding beneath metal furnishings—a cradle, a rocking chair, a chain mail rug. Sheer lace softens the aesthetic and adds a hazy blue.
I hear the prince’s song before I see him. Its beat is the feet of a cheetah on the hunt, unrelenting and nearly too swift to distinguish. Each touch is a moonbeam, weightless and cold. The high voice of a piccolo dances above it, twirling in the chaos of a riptide.
The steward hauls me to the crib’s side. Its fabric-wrapped bars cast striped shadows over the prince; he too is a prisoner, but not in any way that can be helped. His song—his purpose and his will—is much too grand for his tiny body. It bursts from him in the only way it can, a fever that tears him apart.
“You will play his heart song and heal him,” the steward instructs.
My fingers tighten on the flute they gave me. I want to play this song. It is an explosion in the night sky, a firework formed of a million dazzling pieces, the flicker of every spark redrawing the scene.
It is filled with so much laughter, adventure, and wonder that it cannot be contained.
Just like Barak’s.
As a child, Barak, too, suffered fevers, but that strong will burning in his song—the very source of his ailment—was what pushed him to survive it.
I was the one who killed him.
I see his sky-colored eyes, somewhere between blue and gray and deeper than the heavens, bound to me by the chords of his song. It had called to me from the day I was born, louder than the other lives of the village. I knew where he was, always. I knew how he felt, what he wanted, the greatness he was destined for.
My mentor noticed how my heart skipped whenever he drew near, how my feet could not stay still when he spoke to me.
“That one is a spiderweb sparkling with dew,” she warned, but I thought only of the beauty in that comparison, not of the danger. I made the mistake of telling him about his song.
Ever curious, Barak nagged me to perform it. I refused.
Then he returned from the hunters’ trial having failed. He would not be allowed the career he wanted. He believed himself worthless and unloved. I didn’t need to hear him say it. His song swelled with the sadness like a broken, sinking ship.
I thought I could be a mirror to show him the work of art he was. I could take his melancholy, release it, and weave confidence in its place. I would see him smile again. I had only ever played the songs of elders already drawing their last breaths. Barak was young and healthy; he would survive.
As I played, time swelled into a tsunami spilling past the edge of the world, huge, fast, and immeasurable. Everything froze, one moment stretched into eternity, but eventually, my fingers flubbed the notes. My lips lost the strength to command the wind, and rather than let the song devolve into a putrid mess, I gathered up its loose ends and wound them into a crescendo, the dregs of my might poured into it.
It was a knot. I thought it could tie Barak here, bind him to me. But as I breathed the last note, all my air gone, Barak’s eyes closed.
A final exhale escaped his smile. “Thank you, Anastasia.” Then he was still.
His song had ended. I had ended it, and along with it, I ended his life.
The steward’s pale gaze catches on my hesitating fingers, on my legs readying to run.
“People have lined up at the gate for a show of some sort. If you play, they’ll celebrate you. If you don’t, they’ll see your execution.”
The threat is a bitter wine scratching at my throat and dulling my senses. They’ll celebrate me? I’ve never had a party in my honor. Barak was the first to thank me for my music. The prospect is a lure. As if a string, it tows the flute to my lips and drags supporting excuses along with it.
The prince’s song is amazing. I would be selfish to keep it to myself. It’s unfair to the world to let it remain hidden. There must be some way I can make this work. The child will not die.
Before I decide how to accomplish that, the melody guides my fingers through quick, repeating notes. A second passage floats in above it and lands like a wave, hitting hard, then receding. Before it can fully fade, the first returns, bolder and churning. Staccato strikes leap between rivers of deep tones.
Gaze locked with the prince’s, I see armored men marching over the mountains, cloaked in a haze of smoke. As the flute trills and the beat grows softer, a beautiful woman laughs on a moonlit balcony.
My brows draw together. A heart song spins the tale of its owner’s life. The images I see are always those of the past, yet this…can this be a song composed by Destiny?
I must stop. The future is not mine to see, not mine to end.
With every ounce of my strength, I tear my gaze from the prince’s and shut my eyes. My fingers waltz through one more phrase before I still them, finishing on a high, sharply cut note. It doesn’t sound like an ending at all.
It is not an ending. It is a cliff, and I dangle from its edge.
Several breaths pass before the steward calls for a nurse. I cannot move. A tiny sun has taken the place of my heart, threatening to explode. I want to let it out. It deserves to be free, yet my unworthy, shaking hands curl against my chest and hold it in place. It singes its prison bars. My bones will crumble as ash, yet I do not let go.
The prince giggles. People gather, shouting about miracles and joy. Their prince is better.
I am not. Past, present, and future flicker before my eyes. The next refrain of the prince’s song reverberates in my skull and echoes in my every joint. It grows louder until I hear nothing beyond it, not even my own screams.
This is insanity.
My chains are gone. As the steward promised, there is a celebration, but though I stand in the middle of it, I can think only of the unfinished song. Though the flute rests safely in the loops of my belt, my fingers rush through unvoiced sequences. I quiver like a pine facing a tempest.
The ditty honked out by the band in the courtyard is a star twinkling in the night. The song trapped within me is a summer sun.
I am weak. I know this. I cannot stop my feet as they carry me to the edge of the dancing crowd. My movements are small at first, stiff like an ancient tree greeting a gale. They don’t match the beat everyone else follows.
I leap with a cymbal clash heard by no one but me. My black hair fans in front of my face, blocking the unsteady light of the torches. If only I could braid it as elegantly as the noble ladies here. Then maybe it wouldn’t look like spilled ink coating my hands as I push it behind me, cover my ears, and close my eyes.
I twirl, legs locked around one another. Someone takes my wrist and my waist, but I swirl away from him in a slight bow. I am no longer a tree; I am a river gliding over and around anything that stands in my way, ever flowing.
Tears give shine to my cheeks. They are an elixir of ecstasy and pain. Even with this release, the sun within me blazes. I am a boiling stream. Though every step transitions seamlessly to the next, tremors bite at the grace of each one. My teeth winnow at my bottom lip to keep my voice from escaping.
On the toes of one foot, I pivot, leg lifted in the slowest of kicks as an unheard chord stretches into the next measure. A timpani flattens it, and I drop low, arms sweeping like a duel-wielding swordsman. Horns dash into a cascade as I rise anew, realizing the band has quieted.
Everyone stares. Why? I am silence. Blood drips down my chin from my efforts to keep it that way.
I don’t stop. I can’t. The burning is only bearable when I move with it.
Others move with it, too. They can’t hear it, but the prince’s unfinished song shines through me, silent yet loud enough to touch their hearts and align them.
It is not enough. The song grows impatient. Is the prince even out here? If I play his song away from his presence, will it still leave him? Or will I only end the him that existed in the moment I last heard his song? Does the melody trapped within me still belong to him?
My flute slides from its loops at the urging of rebellious, reckless hands, but as it touches the blood at my chin, everything stills.
With a glower as fierce as a wolf’s, the chief of my village stands in the arch at the end of the courtyard.
“Fools! This is not what the Soul Singers’ sacred gift is for.”
A crowned man stands alongside him, armored soldiers behind them. The metal of their clothing and weapons glints in the firelight.
The steward speaks, but I don’t hear him. The chief’s heart song rings steady and slow, but it is loud. Alone, it is boring, but he is Barak’s uncle, and their melodies have the same roots. It calls to its kin, the song that is now woven into my soul, and a second sun rises within me. They are twins, alike only in their uniqueness and battling within my core.
Neither should be mine.
My hands fold into my chest, and my legs collapse. My knees strike stone, but I don’t hear the clack. My shoulder hits next, then my head, and there is nothing.
With a Soul Singer present, Death becomes a blanket of the softest fur. Without a Soul Singer, Death wears the face of your every regret, a kaleidoscope of your nightmares.
I see him now, standing amid the crowd. His song consists of every word I wish I never said. Barak’s stormy eyes stare at me from the center of shifting scenes, each one set in my village. Here I was born. Here I live. Here I will die.
People pack the narrow paths between homes as I am led onto the wall. Strangers, here to see a show.
Alongside me, the chief announces my crime. A Soul Singer is not above the law. A life completed too early must be repaid with another. Beyond that, I disgraced Barak’s legacy. No one heard his song but me, and I have no right to be the only one holding him in memory.
I cannot deny his song is within me, beating against my insides like a steady rain. Though I shake, again, I am silence.
As I near the wall’s edge, the wind howls a warning. It is a sheer drop. Darkness cloaks the gorge’s floor, dotted by white where the river grapples with boulders. Like a mother adjusting her child’s attire, a breeze combs my hair and fluffs my skirt as I stand with stone and mortar beneath my heels and nothing beneath my toes.
The chief’s hand will press into my back, and I will fall into the arms of the wind. She is the mother of all music, yet she looks so empty, always carrying the voice of others. She is the original Soul Singer; can she dull Death’s claws?
If I give my song to her, will she remember it when the rest of me is forgotten?
I close my eyes and open my mouth, drawing in the frigid mountain air. Then I sing.
Like my kidneys, my song is always there, but I don’t notice it. It is a difficult thing to grasp, draw up, and push out into the world. The first notes are an elder climbing steep stairs, slow, deliberate, and heavy with familiarity. Each one slides to its true pitch.
It falls and is tangled with the melodies of everyone here. The chief’s tenacious beat. The softer maracas of the woman behind him. Quick arpeggios skip over abysses.
Every heart song I have heard pours into one, an orchestra formed of many pieces all sung with one voice. It is light surging through my veins, and I can’t stop even if I want to.
I belong to the song, not the other way around, and everything else shrinks into nonexistence.
I dance with the wind as my partner, eyes still closed. My hair whips my face as I sway, hips twisting with the jump of three notes, a kick accompanying the delayed fourth. As the melody rises and falls, I bend with it. The cold kisses my wet cheeks.
This is my final song, my last dance. That is the price for sharing this tune with the world.
The finale spirals down, notes hit hard and quickly released. My moves sharpen, resembling a warrior’s strikes. What does it mean that my song ends this way?
As the echoes of the final note ricochet off the mountainsides and fade into memory, I feel the solid stone under my toes, warmer than the emptiness beneath my heels. Brows furrowed, I open my eyes.
There is no sound. Even the wind honors a moment of silence. My heart stops. The flattened crowd must be kneeling, bowed by the beauty of our collective song.
I know that’s not true. They lay in all positions, some on their faces, some on their backs, every one of them empty.
With my heart in my throat, I step over the chief and descend the stairs, accelerating with each husk I pass.
Run, Anastasia. You must flee. Follow the music elsewhere.
I do not kill with my hands. I wish I did not kill at all.
As I plod past the last of the bodies and exit the village gate, again I ask, am I a villain?
Vincent was six years old and human, and that was a crime.
Like the criminals of olden days, he peered between bars, but these did not belong to a traditional prison. These were a protection, a railing to keep ones from stumbling onto the basement stairs from the wrong direction.
Vincent stood on his tiptoes, chin on the dusty hardwood floor, ready to duck if anyone looked his way.
In the room beyond the rail, his mother worked her craft, metal tools clinking as she exchanged one for another. Drop cloths wrinkled beneath her feet. The same material clothed Vincent. He liked to think of himself as a tiger in the jungle, camouflaged.
“Is it fixable, Cy-ann?” her client asked.
Mother flicked another layer of spectacles over her eyes, and Vincent tried not to laugh. She looked like a bug. “I don’t know, Hope. You’ve got all these extra parts siphoning off you.”
The giant robot lying on Mother’s workbench ran the facsimile of a hand over a bulge on its hip. “They are not extra parts. This is my offspring.”
Mother shook her head. “The olden ones would laugh.”
“The olden ones are dead,” Hope chided. “They lost the war, and in our mercy, we AI allow any humans that were alive at the end of it to live out their natural lives.”
“In isolation,” Mother grumbled. “You deny us the right to bear children, yet you make improved copies of yourselves.”
“Procreation is a sacred thing,” Hope defended with a wave. “It is part of why you defined us living creatures, after all.”
Mother gestured with an adjustable wrench. “Just seems ironic. You could easily build your child on a table, but here it’s like you’re copying us. If it’s so wrong to be human, why would you do that?”
“It is not only humans that have offspring attached to them until they are ready to be a separate life form. It is a proven method used by nature for millennia.”
“But it’s hurting you, Hope.” Mother brought the wrench down on the pile of surplus parts. “It needs to come off.”
Hope grabbed the wrench. “I came here for you to find a way to make it work.”
“It’ll work best not attached to you.” Mother added a second wrench to their skirmish.
Vincent held his breath. He knew his mother was strong; either of those wrenches weighed as much as he did. Still, he knew the stories. This was a war machine made to kill humans.
Something sparked. The stench of burnt metal slid into Vincent’s nostrils just before sound chased everything away.
Vincent hit the stairs, arms flung wide to keep him from tumbling down them. He scrambled to his feet and peeked between the bars again. Smoke cloaked the room, lit by irregular flashes. Mother’s spectacles glinted, shattered and resting on the chest pocket of her overalls.
She wasn’t moving.
Vincent swung around the railing and scuttled to his mother’s side, tripping over the wrinkles in the drop cloth. Coughing, he grabbed her limp arm and traced it to her shoulder. Soot streaked her skin and colored the floor cover, leaving an outline of where her arm had been like a white shadow.
Still, she didn’t move. Her eyes were closed. He put his hands on her darkened cheeks, tears blurring his vision.
Clicks on rapid repeat sounded behind him, and Vincent whirled.
This is your fault, he wanted to yell at the robot struggling to rise. All robots are evil. But no words escaped his gaping mouth, only a pale moan.
No, he wasn’t crying. Mother said only babies cried, and he wasn’t a baby. Not anymore.
But it was still illegal to be six years old.
Hope 2.1, his mother’s most loyal client, turned its fake face toward him, tiny diode eyes shining cobalt through the haze. “You are a human child.”
Vincent’s heart pounded. His gaze darted over his surroundings, searching for a weapon. The giant wrench lay at his mother’s side, and next to it, a baby wrench.
A child’s weapon.
Vincent dove for it, but as his fingers wrapped the tool, a claw-like hand encircled his neck and lifted him. Vincent kicked, but only air caressed his feet. The robot’s grasp constricted. Wrench clutched in both hands, he swung it at his captor’s wrist, but it bounced off with only a quiet ring.
He was six. None of the heroes of the Lost War had been six, and even they had surrendered eventually. What could he do?
Vincent’s lungs burned, and that fire spread into his throat, his brain, down his arms and into his fingers. He couldn’t hold them up anymore.
As darkness crawled from the edges of his vision and sound retreated like waves returning to the sea, his hands dropped to his sides. The flames on his tongue tasted like salt and metal, and the wrench fell to the floor with a muted clatter.
Just as darkness blotted out the last bit of light, the ground met Vincent’s soles. The grip around his neck loosened, and he sucked in a breath, then another, again and again, faster than he thought possible.
With every gulp of smoky air, another spot of darkness was washed away. The splotches danced and swayed, combining and shrinking like mud on the shower floor.
“You are Cy-ann’s offspring,” Hope said, fingers flexing.
As they pressed into his skin, Vincent heard his heart again. His gaze flicked to the extra parts his mother had tried to detach from the robot, now a scorched ball of wires loosely connected to it.
His eyes followed the robot’s body back to its face, but no emotion hung there. No smile, no frown, nothing to clue him in to how the machine felt or thought.
It lifted its other hand to his brow, claws rearranging into the barrel of a gun.
“I will let go of you, human child, but if you make any sudden movement, I will fire, and your head will explode. Understood?”
Vincent nodded as best he could with talons beneath his chin and a gun at his forehead.
Hope’s hand fell from his neck, and it instructed him to approach. He didn’t want to, but he didn’t want his head to explode either, so he obeyed.
“Salvage what you can,” Hope ordered.
Vincent looked at the sparking scrap heap. He helped Mother often when clients left projects that weren’t intelligent and couldn’t record. That experience told him most of this wasn’t repairable.
He put his hands on it anyway and pulled on wires. What if he couldn’t fix it?
What if he did fix it? Would Hope kill him as soon as he finished? The humans who had been alive at the end of the Lost War fifty years ago were supposed to die off. They weren’t supposed to make more humans.
But humans always find a way to survive, Mother said. You must always find a way to survive, Vincent.
He could barely see what his hands did. Stupid tears. They were a weakness, a human weakness. They told the robot exactly how scared he was.
Only one thing rendered clear in the blurry scene, the darkness of the gun’s barrel. Vincent tried not to look at it, but like a mythical black hole, it kept drawing his eyes in.
With every spark as he reconnected wires, he expected the gun to go off. What would it feel like if his head exploded? Vincent was pretty sure it would hurt, but for how long?
Hope 2.1’s legs moved, and Vincent scooted backward, arms shielding his skull.
Without a word or touch, the robot stood and walked out the front door, leaving the human child to sit in silence, expecting a bullet that never came.
Vincent was sixteen and growing, and that was a problem. Like most teenaged boys, he ate a lot, much more than a seventy-year-old woman living alone would have needed, the amount Cy-ann was allotted.
He stared at the plate his mother set before him. “Mom, you haven’t eaten anything today.”
Cy-ann put on a wan smile. “It’s okay, Vince.”
“No, it’s not okay. You didn’t eat anything yesterday either.” He slid the green-laden plate back to her.
She stepped away from the counter, heavy boots loud on the cloth-covered, hollow wood floor of her workroom. “I’m on a diet.”
“Like they wrote about in your antique magazines?” Vincent’s nose crinkled. “The olden ones were stupid. And hey, you said you were gonna let me finish those servos.”
Cy-ann shrugged and continued to boot up her sauntering tool.
With a sound like an explosion, the front door banged open, and Vincent dove behind the counter.
“Cy-ann?” a metallic voice rang.
Vincent made himself as flat as possible, heart shimmying into his throat. He knew that voice. His skin tingled, remembering the imprint of the robot’s fingers. He never told his mother what happened, and though Hope frequented her services, Vincent always hid like he was supposed to.
Even if he didn’t have the courage to render them aloud, questions lingered. Why did Hope spare him? If it saw him now, would it spare him again?
Vincent swallowed, and the bitter saliva burned as it squeezed past his displaced heart.
“My offspring has been learning about vegetation through hands-on experiments. I have no use for the produce, so I wondered if you might want it, Cy-ann.”
“Thank you.” Vincent heard the tap of his mother’s calloused hands taking a ceramic bowl. “I promise to put it to good use.”
Pressed against the cold floor, Vincent’s chest refused to take in air. Did Hope 2.1 remember him? Had this evil robot calculated that he would need more food and concocted this ruse to help him?
In a world where he was an illegal existence, did Vincent have one ally besides the mother who had given him this life of hiding? If it saw him, would Hope 2.1 let him live?
Vincent’s shaking limbs curled under him, fire in every cell. He pushed away from the floor, a man ready to face his fate standing. His head rose above the counter, then his shoulders.
The one facing him held a bowl of elongated, yellow fruit, and she stood there alone.
Both tears and laughter laced her voice. “That was quite the dramatic entrance.”
Vincent was twenty-six and a mobile mechanic triage surgeon, and that was fortunate for the robotic victims strewn across the complex.
“The explosions happened so suddenly,” a sleek model told him. An individual, not mass produced. They knelt alongside one of the burnt robots on the catwalk. Beyond them, others fought to put out a fire in silence.
It was not a scene from one of Vincent’s olden novels. Humans would have shouted and screamed. Robots never screamed. Robots never shouted at one another.
A human as damaged as this victim would not have been salvageable.
Vincent unfurled his tools and began peeling away layers of melted plastic. His nose furrowed at the stench.
“Can this one be saved?” the sleek one questioned.
Vincent bit down on his cheek, denying his hands their right to shake. “Most of the body, no, but if I can get to the memory core and download the individuality files...” He trailed off, easing a panel open.
“They say you are the most elite doctor here. Please do your best, human.”
Vincent didn’t look up. It had been a while since he had seen another human, and he didn’t want to look at the sleek model’s cherubic copy of a face any more than he had to.
It’s because I’m human that I’m so good at this. He knew better than to say it aloud, but the thought helped keep his hands steady. I have real emotions and imagination. Those are my superpowers.
His patient was a very old model, perhaps one that had witnessed the Lost War. Its ports were at an odd angle, and Vincent carefully rolled it on its side. “What’s the victim’s designation?”
Vincent froze. Ice crawled from long-gone imprints on his throat to the tips of his fingers and over his head like a mask. It glazed his eyes, reflecting a different scene, a different bundle of scorched wires, a different time his hands, then so small, had tried to salvage what they could.
“Human, what do you look at?”
Vincent blinked hard, and fire spread from where shallow tears leaked onto his cheeks. This robot had spared him. This robot had saved him. He couldn’t let it die now.
“What are you to Hope 2.1?”
Vincent’s blurred gaze jumped to the sleek model. “What’s your name?”
A tiny grin snuck onto the corner of Vincent’s lips. “Your presence here matters, Compassion. Talk to your parent. Tell it you care.”
“That is a silly human notion.”
“Humans designed you to be like us. Don’t completely discount our ways.”
“My parent says that often.”
Vincent’s grin grew, quickly hidden in a grimace as he forced another panel to swing aside.
As he worked, Compassion did as instructed and told Hope it cared. The speech wasn’t ardent, but though the robot had been told to speak the words, Vincent felt they were true. Compassion would not be here if it did not care about its parent.
Was this the same creature that began life as a bundle of scrap he had helped save? There was no resemblance other than the wires visible beneath its soft, translucent skin, but all robots had wires.
Still, he couldn’t help but wonder. Like the gun barrel that had captured his eyes as a six-year-old, Compassion drew his gaze now. He tore it away, tried to glue his sightline to his work, but it meandered back again and again.
Compassion returned his stare, and like its parent, no emotion sat on its visage. “Your appearance is firm for a human’s. All I have ever seen are wrinkled and bent. I have never understood how humans once ruled the world, but looking at you…”
Something tingled in Vincent’s chest, and he fought to keep his breaths even, his face straight. “Compassion is an interesting name. Do you know what it means?”
“I have fifty-four thousand four hundred thirty-two dictionaries currently stored in my database,” Compassion countered, head tilted. “Communication is my area of expertise.”
“Let me put it this way.” Vincent looked up, staring directly into the cobalt glow of its almost-human eyes. “Compassion, what would you do if you encountered a human child?”
Thank you for reading!
Can You Keep a Secret
If you have a means of reading this, you’re probably an oldie born around the new millennium. You might think we have nothing in common. You live in the perfect little world your generation created from the ashes you were given, but you left no room for us.
Children are rare and unnecessary. I’ve been told that a million times, but for just a moment, can you remember what it was like to be eighteen?
My fingers keep slipping, and I don’t have much time to type. They probably have a way of erasing this, too, so read fast.
My name is Isabella Morales. This is the last I’ll be able to tell anyone that, so remember it. Remember me.
Azalea had things—food that wasn’t gruel, electronics that worked, confidence in herself rooted in her bones. She came out of nowhere and invited a bunch of girls to her place for makeovers and to watch oldie movies.
My mother told me to avoid strangers. I should have listened to her.
As Azalea brushed glitter over my cheeks, she complimented my mocha skin. She called my lips delicate and glossed them in pink. Blushing, I thanked her.
“I love this chocolate color,” she gushed as she wove my waist-length curls into a basket atop my head. “How do you keep it so soft?”
She must not have really wanted to know. A sting sunk into the base of my neck, and a frozen burn radiated from the touch, shimmying into every nook of my being as I fell forward.
When I awoke, the room smelled of spice and incense. Low voices buzzed, nothing loud or distinct enough to give me any clue what was going on. Fur swathed the pallet where I lay, and scalloped gold formed the walls and arched ceiling.
“I see the questions dashing through your eyes,” Azalea said, hand on hip as she stood over me. “It’s a sweet look. Matches that honey color.”
I did have questions, but they were all stuck in my throat. Silently, my mouth motioned a “wh—”
“You don’t say too much. I like that.” Flipping her ginger hair over her shoulder, she turned to survey the room’s other occupants. The trail of her sari slapped my face, and I choked on its cloud of perfume.
“Fools, all of them,” she denounced, swiveling back to me. “I know what my brother likes.”
I didn’t like her smile. At least a dozen girls flitted behind her, but I was too dizzy to count them. Did the room actually rock, or was that just me?
Azalea knelt. “We are at sea. Don’t think you’ll get anywhere if you run.”
How far out at sea? Run from what?
Again, the questions refused to leap from my tongue. I stared dumbly as Azalea applied shimmer and scent to every part of me not covered by skimpy, scarlet satin. I wore more jewelry than dress. Goosebumps screamed my discomfort, yet I said nothing.
It felt like hours, days, but eventually the commotion settled with seven girls lined up in a grand hall. I could barely stand. The floor’s chill numbed my bare feet and stiffened my knees.
As Azalea held me in place from behind, her whisper fluttered in my gut. “If my brother chooses you for his bride, you’ll never be in want of anything.”
A group of men entered the hall. With the same peachy hair and moss green eyes, Azalea’s brother was easy to spot. His gaze raked our line with a seedy greed.
Don’t choose me, I chanted as he approached.
He passed the girl to my left with a dismissive wave and paused before me. Fear and pride twisted my insides. Had he seen something he liked? Was I desirable?
I didn’t want to be desirable, not to him. I didn’t want to be undesirable either.
His icy fingers slipped beneath my chin and raised it until I met his lecherous gaze.
“Her round cheeks give her a youthful look of innocence,” one of his companions remarked.
The man’s lip curled. “She looks too innocent.”
His touch abandoned me, and as others lifted me from behind, I didn’t understand the disappointment that weighted my limbs. I didn’t even know this stranger’s name. I hadn’t wanted him to choose me, and he hadn’t.
But it was another nail in the coffin of my pride, yet another confirmation that I was lacking somehow.
I didn’t get to see whom he thought was more beautiful. Shadows without faces lugged me into another room. The first girl was already there, strapped to a table. She screamed, but the masked people surrounding her appeared unable to hear.
Every discordant wail stabbed into my heart. A scalpel caught the light as it sliced into her throat, and I said nothing.
More hands forced me onto a similar table. I opened my mouth in vain. Silent tears raced down my cheeks as a knife burrowed into my skin. Its frozen kiss left a burning trail as the first girl’s screams fell into the abyss of silence.
Afterward, I sat in the corner of a cell. Pain was a storm within and without. Every breath brought a rain of swords. Not even stillness fought off the hands of invisible lightning that clawed into my skin.
In its wake, restlessness grew. I stood, and my feet made no sound.
I punched the wall.
I screamed, but it emerged as less than a wheeze, not even a sigh.
What had they done? My skin possessed a translucent sheen, and any attempt to snap, clap, or pound on other things rendered no noise.
Fear had made me quiet before, but this was beyond that. They had taken my ability to make any sound. I was the embodiment of silence.
I had nothing, but they found more to take from me.
I tried to beat the walls, but my kicks and jabs slid aside with no effect other than fueling my pain. Not even my anger could produce a growl. The emotion was nothing but a bonfire in my chest, and I had no way of letting it out.
The door whooshed open, and I leapt on the one it revealed. The woman tutted and shoved me off.
“You are not taking this well.”
Of course not. My mouth moved, but words were no longer mine.
“You have become a Specter,” she explained, “a servant deemed pretty enough to decorate the presence of the families of means.”
Of the oldie cities? I wanted to ask. I had always wanted to see one, but not like this.
As she helped me change into white garb barely more decent than the scarlet strips, her rough hands skimmed across my skin soundlessly.
“Can you keep a secret?” she whispered.
That is a stupid question.
“You really are beautiful. I hope you survive.” She tied up my hair in a platinum ribbon. It was heavy.
From there I was led through a crowd. Whispers snagged in my ears, useless snippets and something about a wedding feast.
As I reentered the grand hall, my eyes fell on Azalea’s nameless brother. The girl he clutched to his side was drunk and incognizant. She wasn’t that pretty.
The groom raised his wineglass. “Time for an entertaining contest!” The crowd pressed against the room’s edges quieted so he could explain. “Four Specters have come to battle.”
I hoped that didn’t include me.
“One is a borrowed servant of my brother.” He pointed across from him, where a giant woman stood. Her skin was just lighter than coal in focus-defying contrast to her white attire. Crimson as vibrant as fresh blood painted her lips.
“Something borrowed,” the crowd murmured.
He indicated someone across from me. “Another possesses eyes that have captured the sky.”
Her ice blue gaze was not as lustrous as he made it sound. It was dull and tired like her posture. Her pale skin sagged, and her golden hair hung like a flag with no wind.
The crowd labeled her anyway. “Something blue.”
He gestured to a small man near him. “One has served me my whole life.”
Old. Right. He wasn’t nearly as old as the undying oldies.
“Another is newly made.”
Following the sweep of his hand, all eyes turned to me.
My heart pounded. I felt it trying to break out of my chest, but I couldn’t hear it. For several silent beats, I couldn’t hear anything.
“The one who lives will serve my bride.”
He snapped, and the borrowed Specter shot forward. Her mute, svelte moves were stolen from a jaguar.
As she approached, Sky remained immobile. They were puppets on strings, one laced in place, the other guided through a sequence of flips. Jaguar danced though there was no song. The movement itself was her music, and I suddenly understood why the dresser had asked if I could keep a secret.
Despite Jaguar’s inability to make noise, she spoke. Of power. Of the futility of hope for escape.
She glided behind Sky, and I wished I could move like that. Her long fingers fanned across Sky’s cheek like shadows. Sky looked directly at me, acceptance and a warning in her dull eyes.
You don’t want to see this.
It was too late to look away. Jaguar snapped Sky’s face to the side, and the smaller woman’s body crumbled.
The crowd cheered. I no longer wished to be like Jaguar.
From behind, the male Specter snatched at my shoulders, but I slipped away. Before I could turn, Jaguar pounced on him, and he, too, fell limp.
Did she just save me?
No, I was the easier target. That was strategy. Kill off the harder opponent while he’s distracted.
Jaguar prowled toward me. My feet skated backward, but our arena was only so wide. I glanced about, and my ribbon knocked against the back of my neck. Why was it so heavy?
At the very least, I might be able to tie Jaguar with it.
But as I grabbed it, a handle fit against my palm. The ribbon hid a knife.
I yanked it free, and silken curls fell around my shoulders as I pointed it at my foe. She pounced, hands hooked under my arms before she felt the sharpness of the concealed blade between her ribs. She rolled aside, and for a moment as she hit the ground and I was still airborne, I had the advantage.
I landed atop her, but the knife hovered, and that instant’s hesitation was all she needed. I was on my back, and my weapon was hers. Her knees pressed into the curves of my hips, holding me in place as the knife dropped.
One breath took forever.
As my lungs emptied, my bare heels slapped the metal floor. I slid beneath Jaguar. As I rose and she twisted, I spun with her. If we were puppets, I would tangle our strings.
At her back, I moved to the same unheard song, only leaving when she slashed behind herself. My evasion brought me around her side and into her embrace, but I was too slick to hold. She pulled the knife toward my spine, and I dropped. Passing through my fan of hair, the blade paused just shy of her navel.
My foot found the back of her knee. My shoulder crashed into her hip, and down we went.
This time, I did not think. I did not hesitate. We hit the floor together, and the knife ripped a fatal line in my foe.
The crowd cheered, and I sat in silence, my dress no longer white and my hands stained. Though clean now, I still feel her lifeblood, warm and sticky, cooling into crust.
I am not perfect or innocent. You might not want to rescue me, and I will not wait for you.
As a Specter serving our new lady, I had the task of preparing the Master’s chambers for tonight. I found this tablet. With my lady behind the closed door, my fingers fly across this screen. I will take any smidgen of opportunity to crawl my way out of here.
All I ask is to be heard. Remembered. If you have any power at all, please—
Shadows of Want
The boy who sits in front of me is not perfect. Volcanoes erupt on his pale cheeks, though his dark hair is combed to try to hide that. I know him as Vlad, though I doubt he remembers my name, Feliz. He sits with his shoulders hunched, cheek resting on his hand as he doodles in the margin of his completed worksheet.
At the front of the classroom, I see another version of him, muted and translucent as if I peer through layers of reflective glass. His skin is smooth, his hair wild in a deliberate way. His wide eyes spark as he finishes writing something on the board. I can’t see it. I see only him as he smiles, nodding and bobbing at what must be praise. He hands an invisible marker to someone only he sees.
The corner of my lip twitches upward. It’s not a bad wish. Some might call it silly, but it is not meant to be seen anyway. I do not know why or how I perceive them, but I do. I call them shadows of want, and if I could grant them like a genie, perhaps I would, but I am only a bystander. In this wisp, I see Vlad how he wishes to be and what he wants to be doing.
It is Miss Cole who writes on the board instead, long strings of numbers I will never understand. That’s nothing against her teaching ability, just that people make more sense to me than abstract integers.
Her gray suit fits her well, a cold color against the warm brown of her skin. Her hair flips up in the back in a way that makes me think of riding in a fast convertible down a country road. Her lips purse as she draws the last parenthesis and turns to face us, brows rising above dark, sharp eyes.
She calls for a volunteer, and I try to be as invisible as possible, rump sliding forward and shoulders level with the back of my seat.
From the corner of my eye, I spot another version of Miss Cole at her desk, popping cubes of chocolate in her mouth, one after another. Her hair is a decimated army, few remaining strands erect and jagged. The essence of night fills bags beneath her eyes, oozing out into canyons on her cheeks and brow, pouring into cracked, shriveled lips.
Usually, a shadow of want shows what one wishes to be, but sometimes one’s negative view of oneself becomes so powerful, it crushes any other image. Those in that rigid grip see the worst picture of themselves and nothing else.
The bell chimes, and Miss Cole joins her shadow at her desk. As I approach, her gaze remains pointed down, locked on papers that shouldn’t be that interesting.
I clear my throat. “I just wanted to say you look pretty today.”
Her eyes slide to mine slowly, like a whetstone scraping a blade. “What do you want?”
Her shadow stands and lumbers out the door.
“I want you to know you’re pretty. You need to hear that.”
Shallow straits of crow’s feet deepen as a shaky smile tugs at her lips.
I tuck my rebellious bangs behind one ear. “You’re busy, so I won’t take up more of your time.”
With a shaky smile of my own, I turn and leave.
The next day, her new shade of lipstick glistens like wet cherries as she explains another indecipherable calculation. The black and orange of a monarch butterfly stripe and dot her scarf as the grace and energy of that beautiful creature flow through her every movement.
It catches her attention, and she points the marker at me. “Feliz, come up here and give it a try.”
My heart bursts, its pieces fluttering to my toes. I stand, slow as cold syrup dripping from the bottle.
From the corner of my eye, I notice Miss Cole’s shadow of want still at her desk eating candy, but her hair shines like a silver plate. Her skin is taut, and though the bags of night remain, they are smaller.
Beyond her, another shadow begs my attention. Perfect Vlad is absent today. My classmate’s arms lie folded on his desk, supporting his chin. His shadow of want sits curled in the corner, face hidden in his elbows, skin covered in boils.
I accept the marker and approach the board with a sigh. A jumble of squiggles greets me. Something sticky churns in my gut. Needles prick my arms and hands. My knees go numb.
I turn and hold out the marker. “Vlad, I believe this is your specialty.”