Repeating Island

Yan Fécu

“I’m not supposed to talk to you anymore,” Maile said. “Not like this.”

She and Tav sat on a sequestered patch of black sand beach. They were far enough away from town that its lights glittered like some forgotten constellation.

You can’t ignore me, he said without speaking. Who else would put up with you?

She made a face at him. “My mother says it’s the law.”

But it doesn’t make sense.

“Laws don’t make sense.” She fingered the hem of her scarlet tunic. “They make people.”

Tav kept his gaze trained on the horizon, where one ever-changing blueness touched another. So, I’m just supposed to pretend you can’t hear me?

She forced a small laugh. “Are you hurt? How sweet.”

He used his right hand to sign a single word: go.

Maile paused, still too clumsy when it came to thinking in sign. He never teased her for her slowness, but in that moment she wished he would. She edged closer to him.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We’ll still see each other, but it won’t be easy. They don’t want us … acting familiar, my mother called it,” she finished with a roll of her eyes.

On the surface, there wasn’t much of a difference between them. Her skin was a bit darker; his hair was a bit curlier. But her people were masters, and his were slaves.

 

Not far from where they huddled on a gray linen blanket, two sea turtles ambled towards the tide. Foam washed up closer and closer to the four of them, leaving thin, silvery threads as it drew back towards its source. Maile thought about that morning.

The house had been quiet. Her father wouldn’t be returning until evening. Officially, he was away on business. Unofficially, he was visiting his other family. The children were all illegitimate, all slaves through their mother’s bloodline. They couldn’t inherit or lay claim to anything he owned. Maile thought it was right that he provided for them. Tav’s own father was some rich planter he had never met. He rarely spoke of it, but the man’s absence tore at the edges of him.

That morning Maile had found her mother sitting at a large silkwood desk, sifting through financial accounts.

“There’s no need for conversation,” she had said. “Just orders. And if it’s important, go to Kamda.”

Kamda had raised Maile alongside three of her own children. She looked indistinguishable from her mother, with brown skin and coppery hair braided around her head like a crown. A couple had sold her to the Suranse household soon after she reached puberty.

Maile hadn’t replied, only sighed.

“I know you and Tav have always been close.” Long pauses like this one were rare. They meant that her mother was making an effort. “But you’re older now. There can’t be any confusion. The law will never punish you, my sweet girl. But it will punish him. Believe me.”

And Maile did.

 

Fifteen.

Maile looked at Tav expectantly.

That’s the magic number, he continued. And now we pretend we weren’t raised under the same roof.

“We pretend with them. Not with each other.”

He let out a slow exhale. Maybe it’s time. Maybe we need to find a way to stop this. If every master could hear what we thought, they’d skin us alive.

“No.” The word came out strangled. She swallowed and tried again. “Please. This is different. I like hearing you and …” She stopped. “It’s like how the waves are always there, too. Anywhere you go on the island. If you stopped the sound it would feel wrong. You’re like that. Do you understand?”

Tav didn’t react immediately. Maile felt more words scrambling up her throat, but she waited. After a moment he reached into one of his tunic’s large pockets and pulled out a small, cardboard box. It had been neatly taped shut, though the tape itself was smudged with dirt.

Happy birthday.

She smiled. She held the box up to her ear and gave it a shake. The sound was hard to pinpoint but reminded her of clinking coins. Her smile grew bigger. She scratched off the layers of tape and removed the lid. Sunlight caught on the miniature scrap heap assembled before her. It was a collection of metal parts—iron, copper, pewter—that Maile could put to good use. Much to her father’s chagrin, she spent much of her free time dismantling machines in a makeshift workshop set up in one of their guest rooms.

“How did you get a hold of all this?” she asked.

A little bit at a time. Started last year, I guess. Saw a bit of clockwork I knew you’d love.

She looped her arm around his and briefly let her head rest on his shoulder. “Thanks, Tav.”

I almost got you something pretty. Flowers. A necklace. One of those art books.

“I’ve never seen anything prettier,” she said.

Sitting back, she reached for her rucksack and rummaged through a pile of papers until she reached the bottom. There, tucked beneath her school supplies, was a thin, rectangular package. She offered it to him with a satisfied grin.

He gently tore open the delicate, green wrapping paper. The tin container contained fifteen colored pencils. Their hues—crimson, cobalt, jade, violet—were so rich he imagined he could transform every grain of black sand overnight. He threw his arms around her.

When they had put away their presents, Maile drew her legs up to her chest and hooked an arm around her knees. “Do you ever think it’ll erupt again someday?” she asked.

Tav’s eyes flicked up and away, toward the smoke-colored mountain. It’s been two hundred years.

Even when his voice was lodged in her head, she couldn’t always read the tone. “I hope it does,” she said.

He peered at her with furrowed brows.

She repeated herself by signing, her thin fingers touching each other and touching air.

Everything would be destroyed.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s what it takes to start a new world.”

He peered at her, as if she were a third moon that had suddenly appeared in the night sky. Then, without breaking eye contact, he unhooked the leather and gold embossed collar he wore. Placed on the ground like that, it seemed smaller, duller. He dug out two fistfuls of coal-black sand and buried the only piece of gold he would ever possess.

She had never seen him without the collar before. His neck was long and paler brown where his skin had been shielded from the sun.

That’s what it takeshe mouthed back.

 

Maile rinsed Tav’s collar in the sea, and he wiped off the residual salt with the linen sheet folded under his arm. As they walked back toward the town, they passed the small, iridescent pools that only bloomed at low tide. All kinds of brightnesses filled them: brittle starfish radiating and regenerating outward; sea anemones fluttering their many limbs; and barnacles clinging to every surface.

Maile felt her chest tighten with every step.

This was what the world was like. Tiny tide pools, teeming with every type of life, appearing and disappearing overnight.

How did you get a thing to stay?

Tav stopped beside one of the pools and crouched. I’ll stop here for a while. You should get back first.

She nodded. Every so often she would glance over her shoulder and see him by the pool, growing smaller. She kept looking back until his body melted into the sand and sea.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Maile knew what it was like to realize she was dreaming in the middle of a dream. On occasion, she had been able to use her newfound awareness to shape the dream. Her mind was a blunt instrument in these situations. She could never do anything with precision, but she could conjure simple desires: massive banquet tables piled high with her favorite foods; a large bed with silk sheets that rubbed against every bit of exposed skin; and safe, quiet corners where no one could find her. Best of all was the ability to fly so high that the whole island became little more than a splinter of wood.

This dream wasn’t like the others. It was as if she had become suddenly conscious of the fact that she was part of someone else’s dream. Her own life, her needs and wants, didn’t exist outside of a stranger’s imagination. If that stranger awoke, she would vanish with the first flicker of an eyelid. That morning, her body felt thinned out, like watered-down paint. She had woken up on the floor. Her wrists and ankles, the hollow at the base of her throat and the small of her back, they all seemed to pulse with a second heartbeat. A second life. But she had no time to think about what might have happened or why. It was already light out, which meant she had somehow overslept. She washed her face at a dusty basin and dressed quickly, all the while expecting someone to rush in and punish her. No one came. She slipped on her collar and hurried to the main house. As she cleared the breakfast dishes and set about sweeping, no one remarked on her lateness.

The sun showed no mercy out in the fields. The canecutters felt its rays on their exposed backs like long fingernails, scraping and scorching. The laborers were mostly men, but a few women worked alongside them. Maile was grateful she didn’t have to. Still, whenever she had a free moment, she carried well water out to them. The overseer, who the slaves called just in comparison to other bosses, didn’t stop her.

The grand farmhouse where Maile worked had been in the Calypse family for at least a century. It was two stories high, with a wide veranda, and six stately columns. There was a cellar that remained cool despite the heat, and there they stored alcohol, smoked meats, and root vegetables. There were one-room log cabins adjacent to the main house, where she and several others lived, as well as more slave quarters scattered around the edge of the plantation. Most of the 800 acres were dedicated to harvesting sugar.

On her way through a covered walkway, Maile saw men in tattered, wide-brimmed straw hat hauling bags of feed for the animals. When she entered the cookhouse, Nerjuli was elbow deep in freshly caught fish. Fresh lemon juice razored through their briny scent. A large vat of boiling plantains set the whole place steaming. The woman nodded her head towards the pantry, her private domain, where Maile could fetch extra sugar for the mistress’s tea.

She poured a small amount into a shallow dish and returned the canister to its proper place. The shelves were stacked full with dried beans, rice, cornmeal, flour, salt, nuts, vinegars, jams, and all manner of hot peppers. Higher up she glimpsed more luxurious items stowed away: rare spices and roasted seeds and cured bird eggs. She swallowed and felt the gold and leather collar heavy against her neck. After a moment, she backed out of the pantry. She shut the door and, when Nerjuli caught her eye, signed her thanks. The cook nodded and returned her full attention to the slippery, scaly creatures that, sensing any weakness in their executioner, would have flung themselves back into the sea.

Maile rushed to the main house, conscious of time. The kitchen was a separate building; humidity would have made cooking in the mansion itself unbearable. She gripped the dish of sugar and ran up to the second floor.

“You.”

Only Salmir refused to call her by her name. He was their wealthiest neighbor, and the Calypses invited him and his family over regularly. The couple often asked him to check on the house when they traveled. Salmir waved for Maile to move closer. She took two steps forward. He looked down to see what she carried in the dish. Smiling, he licked the same finger, pressed it against the sheening whiteness, and licked it again.

Maile kept her sight focused on a spot over his right shoulder.

“I imagine running back and forth like this, you must be tempted to do the same every now and again,” he said.

She hesitated. Nodding yes meant admitting to theft. Shaking her head to say no meant implying she was more honest than he was. Never mind that the truth was she had no sweet tooth.

She chose instead to lower her gaze and give a shy smile. As she imagined, he read her ambiguous reaction in the way that pleased him most. Lifting her chin with a finger, he asked, “How do you like working here? I’ve been thinking of taking you off their hands.”

Maile blinked several times, keeping her face passive.

He sighed. “I forget that yes and no questions are best for your kind. Perhaps you’ll teach me some of that crude sign language.”

She gave a non-commital nod.

A flutter of impatience. “Well, then,” he said. “Carry on.”

She gave a deep bow before darting away. As she turned a corner, she caught sight of a scarlet streak and turned just quickly enough to avoid a head-on collision. Tav’s startled expression faded, and Maile kept her head lowered, making all the signs of apology that she could with her one free hand. He dismissed her gestures with a strident one of his own. When she realized the corridor was empty except for the two of them, she sized him up. Then she pushed him aside.

Always in my way! She couldn’t keep from smiling. Don’t you know who I work for?

“Of course,” he said, glancing at the ornate double doors down the hall. “Tell her I take full responsibility for the delay.”

Maile scrunched her nose. Tell her yourself.

Neither one of them moved.

“How are you?” he whispered.

Des-ni, ni-lim. Burning but alive. A common saying among masters and slaves alike.

He opened his mouth to ask another question then closed it. They turned their heads to listen. When the sound of footsteps had faded, he signed as a precaution: see you tonight?

She nodded and, without the bow expected of her, hurried away. Maile was very careful around the Calypses, but she wasn’t afraid. Her master was rarely home. Her mistress—Tav’s aunt—was just as unlikely to rise from her chaise lounge as one of its cushions. She was a slim, dark trinket of a woman, constantly plagued by fatigue. She would have been beautiful were her facial expression not so vacant.

Maile was thinking of the tea and whether it would be too cold for the sugar to dissolve. But then she remembered: everyone knew the mistress’s tea was really straight liquor. Deathface gin sprinkled with dried tea leaves for show.

As she spooned and stirred sugar into a dainty blue cup, she thought of Tav and his signing. His gestures were stiff but elegant. She knew he practiced often with Nerjuli’s youngest son; he wanted to talk to her in all the ways he could, he said.

Maile wanted the same. But she hadn’t built up the courage to ask him for what she now dreamt of daily: learning how to write. They would meet just before dusk as they did on every shared birthday. This time she would ask him. If she didn’t start learning now, at sixteen, she never would.

Instead of meeting on the beach in the open as they tended to do, Maile and Tav met in a grotto. The sun was beginning its slow descent. Around them the walls seemed to iridesce. Near the entrance ferns and flowers trickled out of every crevice. Deeper inside the cave, only moss flourished in the dim light. Pale stone walls sheltered them on three sides but couldn’t mute the sea. Sitting across from each other, they felt the waves resound all around them, like a bell or a mouth.

Tav held out a thin, circular package tied with a plum-colored ribbon. “Happy birthday,” he said.

Maile tugged one end of the bow to unmake it and removed the lid. Against the box’s deep purple interior lay rows of chocolate shards. They glittered with decorations—shredded coconut, swirls of pink salt, delicate gold leaf filigree.

When she didn’t reach for one right away, he said, “They’re not sweet. I promise.”

She gave him a wide smile. She lifted a single specimen dusted with fresh lime zest and took a bite. It snapped perfectly between her teeth. The cacao had a bitter, charred taste; an unexpected burst of moonpepper prickled her tongue as the chocolate dissolved. Tav laughed at her, and she knew her face must’ve looked absurd. She didn’t care.

She nudged the box towards him. Have some.

When she had eaten four more pieces, she made herself pause.

It was hard. She rubbed her fingers against a patch of moss. Figuring out what I could give you that you didn’t already have.

He cleared his throat. “You didn’t have to get me anything.”

I know. The pleasure of my company is its own gift.

He conceded this with a grin.

Still. She had a rucksack with her, and from it she pulled out a stack of paper bound tightly along the righthand side with twine. The cover was gray cotton stretched over a thin slice of wood. I made you a book.

Tav’s eyes widened. He took it from her and opened it.

It doesn’t have words or anything. She felt her face starting to burn. But it has pictures. From other books and postcards and old photographs. All kinds of things people have lost. There are diagrams, too. I did those. Of different machines. Some real, some imaginary.

She swallowed. He flipped through the patchwork pages with a focus she had only seen when he was drawing. When he reached the last page, he left the book open and gently placed it to the side.

I know a book’s meant to have words. Even though all this was being said in her head, she felt her throat constrict. So, I was thinking that maybe, if you have time, you might be able to teach me some things. Things to spell. And after, I could fix the book.

“It doesn’t need fixing,” he said. “And I’ll teach you everything I know.”

She drew in a deep breath. Thank you.

He took her hand and squeezed. Then he slid the book back into his lap. “The images don’t seem random. There’s a story here, isn’t there?”

Surprised, she nodded.

“Will you tell it to me?”

She moved to sit beside him and placed half of the book onto her own lap. It begins with a woman who can hear stones singing and another woman made of pearl.

Partway through, Tav had leaned back against a wall to listen without looking. He balled up his own rucksack to use as a pillow.

When Maile reached the end of the story, she tilted her head. Are you having a happy birthday?

“The happiest,” he murmured.

She reached for the plum-colored box and, after careful consideration, chose a ginger-laced slice that made her lips pucker. I had the strangest dream on my last birthday. She licked a smear of chocolate off her finger. Did I ever tell you?

Tav didn’t answer.

She watched his sleeping form. It was similar to his waking self except for a curious lack—of worry or fear or anger, she wasn’t sure. She rested her arms on her knees and her head on her arms. She would wake him in a little while. Their families would be expecting them. Soon, but not yet.

 

○ ○ ○

 

We’ll be switching soon.

It was late. Two moons swam in the sky and gave off just enough light to make out Tav’s face. Maile barely recognized the voice in her head. It was tight and gutteral, as though he were in pain. Damp, black sand stippled their tunics. She had forgotten to bring a blanket.

“It’s getting worse,” she said.

You mean harder to remember. 

Her eyes scanned the sky as though answers might be found there. “But why?”

The morning after her seventeeth birthday, Maile knew she hadn’t been dreaming. She, along with four other house slaves, had gone to sleep on thick mats of woven rush grass on a dirt floor. Seven hours later she had woken up, alone, in a large, canopy bed with a lace-edged sheet pulled up to her waist. Before she could puzzle anything out, someone had knocked on the door and asked, “Miss Suranse, may I bring in breakfast?”

In her mind two worlds lay on top of each other like layers of silk. There were two sets of street names, two sets of religious rituals, two sets of monuments to one great revolutionary leader.

There’s only one of me. And only one of you. Tav’s lips didn’t move.

“That doesn’t matter,” she said.

It does. One of me. One of you. 

She leaned against him and closed her eyes. She heard his heart pulsing through bone and velvety skin. She heard streams of air spill in and out as he breathed. Beneath all that, she heard the waves gnashing like teeth. She opened her eyes. “The sea,” she said.

What about it?

“It doesn’t change.”

He raised an eyebrow. The sea is always changing. That’s what makes it the sea.

“But its name doesn’t change, I mean. Kassouine. That’s not a word in my language or in yours.” Maile paused, thinking. “In both versions of our world, we revolted against the colonizers and chased them out. But then what happened? We fought each other, enslaved each other, same as they did to us.”

He nodded slowly. It’s like they never left.

She sat up. “What if you’re right?”

What do you mean?

“What if they’re still here? What if they still control us?”

Tav’s jaw clenched. He shook his head in disbelief. If they could do that—make a whole civilization forget themselves—they’d be gods.

“I don’t know about that,” she said. “Sounds too human to me.”

Well, whatever’s happening, we’re the only ones who see it.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” she whispered. “Everyone around us … They know who I am, but they don’t.”

He didn’t know what to think.

“Tell me again,” she said.

Tell you what?

She took his hand.

One of me. One of you.

 

○ ○ ○

 

It will end. They don’t know it, but I do. Today’s master is tomorrow’s slave.

Salmir couldn’t hear Maile, but he could see her. Something about her sealed-tight expression unnerved him.

“You weren’t cheap,” he said, unable to hide his self-satisfaction. “But nothing worth having is. You’re here, and you’re mine.”

She didn’t flinch. For now.

He blinked. It was as though he had heard her. The slap took them both by surprise.

She stumbled backward. She felt heat rising in her face.

For a moment he considered her.

Maile realized he was waiting—checking for signs of resistance, inaudible or otherwise. She stood dumbly and turned herself into a thing.

His limbs loosened with relief. He moved to the bed that took up much of the floorspace in the small room. He yanked at the tight tucks until the gauzy white blanket trailed on the floor. “More inviting,” he said, turning to face her again. “Did you think I bought you for myself?”

She stared.

His face twitched; he seemed amused. A timid knock broke the silence. “Come,” he said.

A boy, no more than a year or two younger than Maile, shuffled in. He was a replica of his father in build only. Like a rabbit, he had only two instincts: to freeze or to bound away. When he spoke, she could barely make out a word. After a moment, Salmir returned his attention to his merchandise.

“My son doesn’t like girls,” he said calmly. “That wouldn’t be a problem, except he doesn’t like boys either.”

Maile’s face crumpled with confusion.

“He’ll inherit all that I have some day,” Salmir continued. “But no one will work with a man they can’t trust. And no one will trust a man who refuses to choose a side. So, I’ve chosen it for him.”

He turned to his son and gripped his shoulders. “Try to enjoy yourself. I’ll be back soon.” Salmir smiled as he said this, but the boy could not meet his gaze.

When the door closed behind him, Maile backed away. She held up her hands in a silent plea.

“He’ll know if I don’t,” the boy said. He tightened his fingers into fists to stop them from shaking. “I don’t have a choice.”

She realized that her father, who visited his other family and sent the other woman money every month, had been the same kind of man as Salmir. The same kind of terror.

No slave could choose a master. You couldn’t say yes to anything if saying no meant nothing at all.

 

Maile walked to the black sand beach in a daze.

“What happened?” Tav had arrived before her.

When she looked at him, she couldn’t make sense of his face. It seemed familiar but out of place. She also couldn’t keep still. She paced and pulled at her hair and scratched at her forearms. Her breathing grew erratic. There was too much air one second and too little the next. She felt tears beginning to gather, and she crushed her palms against her eyes.

He moved to touch her then stopped. His arms hung by his side. “Maile, please. What’s wrong? What happened?”

She stared at him, her eyes wet and unblinking. Then she opened her mouth and let out a low, rasping moan. It rose from deep inside her and sent him scattering.

He listened to her voice echoing in his head, but language was no longer part of it.

She wasn’t speaking to him, but she also wasn’t shutting him out. She was feeling too many species of pain at once. He put a tentative hand on her shoulder before embracing her. He held her until her throat swelled shut. Finally, exhausted, she let her body collapse against his. Supporting her weight, he gently sat her down. He left an arm around her waist to keep her upright. She swayed with the inhale and exhale of the tide.

She couldn’t tell him what happened—not straight out. He slowly plucked fragments of thought from the memories that flooded in and out of her.

“I’ll kill them both.” Tav’s voice was fl at.

You won’t.

“You want to show Salmir mercy?”

No. She was the quietest she had ever been in his head. I want to keep you safe.

For the first time, he found himself closing his mind to her voice. He hadn’t known it was possible, but it happened with little effort. He could still hear her, but there were a series of doors between them now, dampening the sound.

Sensing the distance, she turned to study him. Her face remained impassive.

“I know how you feel,” he said.

She stopped swaying. How could you possibly know?

“I wish I didn’t.”

The anger drained out of her. Who—she stopped.

“My aunt.”

The woman who drank herself adrift every other day. The woman who did not notice, did not have to notice the dozens of slaves under her watch who moved and kept her life moving like gears made of flesh. The woman who Maile fetched sugar for.

She felt Tav brace himself, but for what? Her disgust? Her rage? The sand beneath them, creased into the lines of her hands and feet, suddenly felt like sugary beads. She drew closer to him. If we can’t stop what’s happening to us, maybe we can escape it.

“And go where?”

Anywhere we want. The sea doesn’t change. If we get off the island, things will be different. I know it.

Tav considered this. “Would you really leave everything behind?”

Every year for the last three years I’ve had to leave everything behind. Everything except you.

He sat back on his heels and touched the sand with his index fi nger. He began to draw. “We can go before we switch back.”

Gives us just under a week.

“I can gather supplies. Food, water, clothing. No one will say anything.”

What can I do?

“I’ll give you gold. You can go down to the docks and buy passage for two on a ship leaving for the northern coast. Confirm with the seller that it’s under my name.”

She bit her lip. That’ll be an easy trail to follow.

“That’s the idea. We’ll buy the tickets, but we won’t be getting on the boat.”

Okay. She gave a sigh of relief. And we won’t need two tickets. Just one.

“But what about you?”

I’d be traveling as your personal property. They just pile us up in the cargo hold.

He rubbed his neck as though it were sore. “Right,” he said. “I forgot. I’m sorry.”

Don’t be. You’ve seen the other side for yourself.

“There’s one more thing.” He hesitated. “If we leave now, you won’t have your voice. Do you want to wait?”

Next year they would be turning eighteen. Maile glanced down at what he had sketched in the sand. It was a simple outline of their island, with a river running through its middle and a long tongue of land extending eastward. She looked towards the sea and back to the drawing. Around it the black sand beach extended in every direction. She had to believe this is what the world was like: not tiny, evanescent tide pools but an endless unfolding.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Yan Fécu is a Haitian-American scholar and writer. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and held a pre-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. She was a fellow at the VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts writing residency in 2017. She is currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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Where Did You Go?

Beth Little

Remember that time we were running in the marsh behind my house, and I got stuck? Right in that spot between the tide river and the tall grass? Remember? I stepped right where my dad always told us to go around. “Careful over there,” he said. “Like a sinkhole. It’ll suck you up.” He should have known we weren’t listening. We were ten.

We were running and laughing. We were always laughing. Always running. This time, you were doing your silly high-knees walk through the grass like a weird ostrich, cheering me up because that jerk Duncan made fun of me at school again. I was still sad about it, and I didn’t have to tell you. You knew.

We’d had that thing in class where we were sharing our family stories. Remember? Classic fourth grade. You told everyone how your parents met at Disney World. Love at first sight and then you were born. You made it up. Better than the truth, you’d said. People clapped. Then it was my turn.

“I came into my family on a plane.” I explained how my parents had to travel to Korea to get me, how it cost lots of money, and how I felt special because they picked me. I needed a family, and I got one.

I went back to my seat while people clapped. You patted me on the shoulder.

During free time, Duncan and his crowd circled around me.

“Why would anyone pay money to have you? No way.” He laughed and pointed to the door. “Send it back. It’s too ugly.”

The circle laughed, their mouths full of Goldfish and graham crackers.

“Her real mom had it right.” He motioned like he was kicking something into the nearby trash bin.

“Leave her alone,” you said.

I remember standing behind you, watching his face turn red.

“What’re you going to do about it, Faggy Finn?”

When you put your arm around me and turned us the other way, he laughed and took off with his buddies. I could feel the tears welling up.

Then you did what I’ll never forget. You put your arms up like wings and strained your neck and did the ostrich walk right across the playground and then back at me. You pecked at my head and shoulders, and I smiled and laughed out loud, forgetting everything else. You were doing it again later in the marsh, and it was working. I forgot about my bad day.

I giggled and imitated you and before I realized, I was right where Dad said not to go. I heard the sloop of the muck as it filled my boots.

“Finn!” I screamed.

You turned and ran back.

“Give me your hand,” you said.

I reached up, and you grabbed my hands with both of yours, and you pulled as hard as you could.

“Ow!” I yelled.

You let go and I started to cry. Of course, it wasn’t dangerous. I wasn’t going to die, but at that age everything is magnified. Every emotion. Every incident. It was life or death to us. When you’re ten, life is big. Bigger than us. The marsh was vast. The ocean beyond it even more so. Sure, we saw ourselves as big kids. But we were not immune to getting scared. Not immune to sinkholes.

We could see my house, just barely, across the marsh, and through the trees.

“I’m going to find your dad.”

“Don’t go.”

“Someone has to save you, and I can’t get you out.”

I remember how defeated you looked. I took a deep breath and stopped crying. I was going to be brave for you.

“Here,” you said and reached into your pocket. You took out one of the two silver dollars you always had on you. The one with the handsome, dead president on it. The one you let me hold when we watched Finding Nemo during the part when the shark smells the blood and chases them. I’m still scared of sharks, you know. Your gran gave them to you for luck, so of course, they were sacred. Magical.

I held the coin in my hand; it was warm from living in your jeans.

“Hold on to this and don’t let go until I come back.”

You squeezed my hand and ran. It felt like you were gone forever, but you and Dad came back and you helped him pull me out. I lost those boots, but I still have the coin. It’s here. On my desk. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it.

Now, I’m staring at it, thinking about you, about what happened. It’s all I can think about since Friday. Since we saw it on the news. Since we found out.

I keep catching my dad standing still at the kitchen window, looking out over the tall grass to the tide river like he’s trying to find something. I think he’s wondering what happened to that boy, that best friend of his little girl.

I’m looking, too.

Where did you go?

 

The Washington Post—21 Dead In a Mass School Shooting

It began with a few shots and escalated to one of the most horrific school shootings this country has seen. After only nine minutes, 21 people were dead.

 

Twenty-one people.

That’s a lot of people. It’s not hundreds or thousands like in explosions or wars or even other shootings, but it’s a lot for one person, one gun.

I didn’t sleep at all that night, after I heard about the shooting, after I heard about you. Then, this morning, I was greeted by the paper and its headline on the kitchen table. I stared at the yellow tape, the bodies, the police cars, the crying friends, the teachers, the families, the bodies. Then, I turned the paper over, and there it was, your face. A picture of you from your high school’s yearbook under the fold. You’re so much older than I remember. Of course. It’s been five years. Six? Almost. Your hair is darker. It’s not the light brown with tints of blonde I remember from when we were little. Your jaw is tightly set, lips straight and serious. I barely recognized you.

I threw the paper across the kitchen and ran to the bathroom. Mom tried to follow, but I slammed the door in her face. I got in the tub and pulled the curtain closed. It reminded me of my grandpa’s funeral. Remember? I spent that morning in the tub. Black dress, black tights, black hair in a braid, black Mary Janes. When you got to the house, Mom let you come in to get me.

“Why are you crying?” you asked.

“He’s going to be on display. Like at a museum. Like a stuffed lion.”

“He’s not stuffed,” you said.

“The guy in the coffin isn’t him. He’s gone from here. He’s up there.”

I followed your eyes to the ceiling.

“You believe in heaven?” I asked you.

You thought for a minute, then answered, “I think so. Something’s better than nothing.”

“Much better than nothing,” I agreed.

“Then let’s believe it.”

I nodded and looked up, picturing Grandpa in a fluffy world where old people, any people, can’t fall and hurt themselves. I saw him sitting in his favorite chair, smoking as many of those cigarettes from the yellow box as he wanted, drinking his favorite whiskey, and watching me, smiling.

You held out your hand, and I took it. You pulled something out of your coat pocket.

“From Gran,” you said. “She’s sorry she can’t come, but she has to work.”

It was a travel checkerboard with magnetic pieces, so you can play it in the car without them sliding all over. We played checkers in the lobby of the funeral home during the whole service. You made it an epic match, so I’d forget Grandpa’s cold, not-alive body was in the other room. I’d just won my third or fourth game when Mom and Dad came out to get me.

“It’s time to say goodbye,” Dad said, pulling me up from my place on the carpet.

“Let’s go,” Mom said, taking my hand.

I pulled you along with us.

We entered the room, and I could see Grandpa lying there in his suit. I stopped. Mom let go of my hand, and she and Dad kept walking.

You leaned over and whispered, “Just look down. Follow my feet.”

People moved out of the way for us. You stepped in front of me, eyes up, focused ahead. I followed, watching your neon ReeZigs lead the way. I wished I had those on instead of my tight, clicky Mary Janes. You stopped. I looked up. Your head was straight forward, looking at Grandpa, blocking my view of his face. All I could see was his bottom half. Gray pants, brown shoes. A glimpse of his socks, the ones with the anchors. We stood for a few seconds and then Mom ushered me out from behind you.

“Say goodbye, Haley.”

I wished I was back in the bathtub, hiding. I looked up at the ceiling and then closed my eyes. I saw him, surrounded by soft fluffiness, cigarette and whiskey in hand. A smile on his face.

“Bye, Grandpa,” I whispered.

You took my hand, and we walked back out to the lobby.

I’m back in the tub, staring up at the ceiling, now. I close my eyes. I can’t see you.

 

The New York Times—The Troubled Path of the Country’s Most Recent School Shooter

In the years leading up to the mass shooting at Coleman High School, the shooter came into his own with no real family to guide him. He had an unstable home life, raised mostly by a grandmother who died when he was 12. After her death, he shifted between family members until a second cousin took him into her home before 9th grade. The last three years have been riddled with police interventions, depressive online statements, and social isolation.

 

Remember in the fourth grade when we were obsessed with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe? One time, you pulled everything out of that gigantic wardrobe in your gran’s bedroom, and we pretended to walk through it, into Narnia. You had created the best Narnia in your backyard. You must have been building and molding snow with your hands at dawn. You said it wasn’t a big deal, but there were shoveled-out paths, leading from snow hut to snow hut, winding around the yard right up to the snow castle in the back corner. It had a spire and inside, a snow bench big enough for both of us. I wish your dad hadn’t gotten so mad and kicked them all down.

I remember the look on his face when the back door slammed, and he stomped out into the yard. We hid in the castle, peering out from one of the little windows you’d made. His boots crunched in the snow as he weaved along the paths towards us, kicking holes in the huts, and calling your name.

We crouched down lower. His voice made me shake.

“Finn.”

You didn’t answer. You’d figured out a long time before that talking never got you anywhere. Silence was better.

“What the hell did you do to your grandmother’s bedroom?”

Again, no answer.

I got up on my knees and peeked out. I saw him shrug and shiver. He didn’t have a coat on. Just a t-shirt.

“Finn,” he said again.

Nothing.

He turned and kicked down the rest of the snow buildings on his way back to the house.

Gran came a little while later with hot chocolate and brownies. They were warm and wrapped in foil. The next day, she came out in her snow pants and warmest coat. She helped us rebuild and then she played the White Witch. She had the best cackle.

You know in the news they’re saying you had no one. No one in your family wanted you, you felt abandoned and rejected. That’s not true, not completely. Gran wanted you. Gran loved you, but she died, and you had to move, and no one could do anything about that.

If only I hadn’t stopped emailing you, hadn’t been distracted by new friends, if only I’d tried harder to find you on social media, if only I’d put in the work to keep you in my life, if only I’d made you hear me when I said, “You’re special to me.” If only I’d given back your lucky coin, if only we’d played more with other kids, if only I’d picked up my cell phone last year when that number called, area code of Your New State, if only ….

Maybe none of this would have happened.

Then again, maybe it would have.

 

USA TODAY—After a School Shooting, Who’s to Blame?

Last week, 17-year-old Finn Albert walked into his high school with an AR-556 assault weapon and killed 21 people before taking his own life. This week, the nation is embroiled in a debate about who’s to blame.

 

I’m going to college for acting, you know? Maybe I’ll become famous like you always said I would. I used to have this dream where I’m an actress on a big time TV show and you’re a cool computer game developer. In it, we’re older and way beyond our awkward phases. We’re good looking. Hot even. We’re happy and in our twenties, and we meet up, and you realize you love me. “I’ve always loved you,” you say, and we kiss. It’s one of those amazing kisses where lips know what to do, and the two people fall into each other like they’d been meant to do that their whole lives.

It’s stupid. I know. I used to think about it a lot, but now, I wish I’d never had that dream. Thinking about it hurts. There’s a pain inside my chest, past the heart, inside the walls of my body, and I don’t think it will ever go away.

We never could have loved each other. We never could have been best friends again. Because how could I love someone like you?

 

The Wall Street Journal—Coleman Shooting Victims Remembered at Church Service

Members of the First Baptist Church, located two blocks from Coleman High School, gathered Sunday to pray for the victims, including the deceased shooter. Pastor Darrell Clifton says the focus of the service is healing. A vigil will be held on Tuesday night on the front steps of the school. The healing will continue there as over 500 are expected to gather.

 

I can’t sleep. You know me; if something’s on my mind, sleep will never come. Not to mention I’m on a bus, and you know how I feel about buses. I’ve been on this bus for five hours, and I’m only halfway there. I know what you’re thinking. What could be so important for me to ride a bus for so long?

The bus drops me at the gas station on Main Street. I walk the half mile to the school. Did you skateboard along this sidewalk with its cracks and uneven concrete? Did you loiter in front of that convenience store? Buy sneakers at that sports shop? Did you get ice cream at that diner? A milkshake maybe? Did you ever kiss a girl on one of these side streets or go to a dance in this town? I hear Mom’s voice, “No more questions, Haley. No more.”

I don’t want to push through the crowds outside the school. It’s not my place. I stand to the side. I’m here to pay my respects, quietly. I’m here to see it for myself, get a sense of this place. It’s a normal, little town, but I can see the sadness oozing from every sidewalk crack, every street lamp, every person I pass.

 

The Boston Globe—Hundreds Hold Vigil for Victims of Coleman Shooting

Nearly 700 people came to the steps of Coleman High School to attend a candlelight vigil for the 21 people killed in the mass school shooting one week ago. The names were read aloud as a large candle was lit for each victim. Friends, family, and community members cried together, remembering their loved ones.

 

I stood at the back of the crowd.

Twenty-one names were read. Candles were lit for each loved one lost. People who were loved by family and friends, loved by someone at some time. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 … 21 names. It was beautiful and sad.

I said your name. I whispered it to myself. I lit the candle I held. Not for the killer, not for you, the boy who did all of this damage, the boy who took twenty-two lives. I lit the candle for the boy I lost, the Finn I knew, the boy in the snow castle. The ostrich in the marsh.

I watched the flame flicker and wave back and forth in the light breeze.

I said your name one more time. “Finn.”

I brought the candle closer, let out one breath, and it went dark.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Ian Lynam, curated by Dana Lyons.

Beth Little spent twelve years working as an English teacher in New Hampshire. She has two degrees in writing—a MLitt (fiction) from the University of St Andrews in Scotland and a MFA (Writing for Young People) from the Solstice MFA Program of Pine Manor College where she now works as Assistant Director of the program. Beth’s work has been published in the anthology SOMEBODY’S CHILD: STORIES ABOUT ADOPTION, Eastown Fiction, and the YA Review Network. She was awarded a SCBWI Magazine Merit Honor in 2016.

bridge media | Nike Off-White

The Gift

Margo Lemieux

Chapter One

The Boy

 

The boy shouldered the ax and carried the bucket down to the stream. These days the ice was harder to break up. Winter was coming.

But today the air was mild and the stream still running briskly. His thick black hair, grown to collar length, kept his neck warm. The sky was so blue it hurt. A pair of eagles circled in the valley, so gracefully they looked like the air was holding them up.

Some people would have said the boy was too young to be on his own, but as far as he knew, he had always been on his own. Even at the Home, he had been on his own because nobody watched after him. Oh, he had been fed and had a bed, but nobody talked to him, tucked him in, read to him, even when he was little. Now, at twelve, he was too old for bedtime stories. Not that anyone cared.

He figured it was probably days before anyone even noticed he was gone.

Except—maybe for the money. He felt bad about that, but he hadn’t been able to think of any other way.

He gazed at the ice blue sky. In front of him, the mountain stream plunged into the valley below. Beyond, the hills rolled away, waves of rust and brown, punctuated by patches of moss green spruces pointing to the sky. Not a house as far as the eye could see.

Not another person. The eagles waltzed effortlessly in wide circles, rising higher and higher.

The air that had stung the inside of his nose in the pre-dawn cold was warming as the shadows of the distant hills slid down the mountains to the west. A glorious sun was cresting the mountains. Today would be a good day to hike into town. Soon there would be big snows and after that, who knows when he would be able to go again.

The dog raced around him in sheer delight. The frosty leaves crunched under her feet.

“Here, girl.” He took time to throw a branch for her.

She grinned, scooped up the branch, and ran back to the cabin.

“Good dog,” he called. “We need more firewood.” Finding the dog had been pure luck, just like finding the cabin. She had just joined up with him one day as he skirted the railroad yard in the capital. A thin and grungy brown mutt she was, and she had stayed with him. More than he could say for anyone else, including his mother. He barely remembered her, but he still remembered the day she had left him. He had waited, alone, a long time for her to come back. Then there were different people fussing over him. Always different people, he thought as he trudged along.

The walk into town was long, and he took the gun with him. Maybe he could get a deer. “I only hunt what I need to live,” he told the trees. “The elk, the deer, the squirrels are my brothers.”

He knew they  wanted to find him in the woods. He knew they would be searching for him, especially to get back the money. But he was meant to be alone. No one had ever cared about him. Why should he care about them?

Anyway, if they found him, they would send him back to the Home, back to the nightmares.

 

Chapter Two

Into the Town

 

The noonday sun was quite warm. Long before he reached the cluster of haphazard buildings—general store and post office, the town—he shed his hat, letting his hair absorb the sun.

The land was level here, a sort of plateau shaped by the face of the mountain on one side and by the river valley on the other. Some of the houses in the center of town were old, Victorian style, with ornate gables and wraparound porches. The rest were an assortment of ranch style, log cabins, and odd, indescribable buildings that had no character at all.

The church and the few ramshackle hotels sat quietly in the midday sun.

The general store looked ready to fall down. Perched close to the steep riverbank, it was more a collage than a solid structure, where previous owners had added and subtracted according to needs and whims.

“Hey, boy.” Surrounded by an assortment of tires and shovels on the porch, the man they called Old Rat had tilted his chair against the wall, squinting at the sun. His pointy nose, the tip dark from the years of exposure to scorching summer sun and the frigid winter winds, wiggled cheerfully. The pipe stem disappeared into the crevice between his nose and chin, where his mouth ought to be.

“Hi,” the boy said. He couldn’t bring himself to call the man Old Rat. It sounded derogatory somehow. Old Rat took the gun. He broke it open, inspected the barrel, sniffed it.

“Been keepin’ ’er good, I see. Jest like I showed ya.” He grinned, deep wrinkles crinkling his face.

“Just like you showed me,” said the boy.

He left the gun and the dog with Old Rat and entered. The heat of the big wood stove hit him like an open oven.

He paused to let his eyes stop down and adjust to the dark. The smells of freshly baked bread and tractor tires mingled with the powdery odor of animal feed.

The inside was the same confusion. The shelves and counters were crammed with food, clothing, seeds and fertilizer, cedar souvenir boxes. Nearly every imaginable item hung, sat, waited somewhere in neat disorder to be needed.

“Hi,” said Mr. Flynn, the mayor and proprietor. “Got some new magazines in, boy.” His voice was big, like his chest. His snow white mustache matched his broad butcher apron rather than his thick cardboard-brown hair.

While Mr. Flynn was busy with customers, the boy wandered to the book rack. Books were his friends. Those long evenings at the Home, he had filled the time reading. Books on hunting and fishing and surviving in the wilderness. What berries to eat, how to skin a squirrel.

Maybe he could write a book. Someday.

He picked up a couple of magazines and a book on preserving game meat. He would have liked to buy more to read, but it was a long hike back. Every ounce would be heavy.

Matches. Ammo. He had wasted a lot of ammo picking off pine cones. Crackers and cocoa. Granola. Should he get vitamins? The Nurse Lady at the Home was always telling the kids to take their vitamins.

The Nurse Lady. From top to bottom, she was the color of skim milk. White dress. White legs. White hair. The skim-milk blue under her eyes. Even her voice was thin and watery.

In her pale voice, she had said, “Take your vitamins, dear. Then you won’t bruise so easily.”

He never took his, and he never got sick. He never took his and nobody ever noticed.

 

Chapter Three

Wolves Been Sighted

 

“How’s everything with your family, the uh … ?” Mr. Flynn asked, stacking the compact bullet boxes on the counter.

“My cousins, the Smiths,” the boy said. “They’re fine.”

He turned quickly to the display stand of batteries by the door. Too many questions always. He should have remembered that about Mr. Flynn. All those questions forced him to make up the story in the first place. What was he supposed to say? That he was all by himself in a cabin up on the mountain? That he had run away from the Home? Then they would want to send him back.

Mr. Flynn peered sideways at him. “Been wolves sighted there up on the north face,” he said, weighing up the granola. “You ain’t seen um, have ya?”

The boy shook his head.

“Well, you take care. Them wolf packs been known to tear a man to pieces just fer fun. In me dad’s day, we could shoot ’em on sight.” He shook his head. “No more. Not allowed to. You just wait. Somebody’s agonna git killed. How come your cousins don’t drive you down? Where was it now they live?”

“I like to walk,” he said trying to change the subject. “I’ll have some of those dog biscuits too.”

It was time to go. Too much talking could mess everything up.

The pack was heavy, but he refused to let Mr. Flynn see he had trouble getting it to his shoulders.

“Well, boy, nice seein’ ya.” The big man paused on his way to help another customer. “You …” He stopped. “You watch out fer them wolves,” he said finally.

Old Rat was asleep in the sun, the dark tip of his nose protruding from the shade of his oily hunting cap. The dog rested her chin on Old Rat’s lap. His mottled brown hand rested on her head.

“Have to go,” said the boy.

Old Rat barely moved. The pipe bounced up and down as he smiled and he lifted his hand.

“Take care, boy,” was all he said.

 

Chapter Four

The Night

 

The shadows were already long and purple when he came to the trail. The going was much tougher than on the road. And steeper.

By the time he reached the cabin, the moon was rising and the temperature way below freezing. His breath made steamy clouds; his legs felt permanently bent. The dog ran in circles, barking happily to be home.

“The least you could do is open the door,” he shouted at her, his voice echoing in the mountain stillness as his burden thudded to the ground. He dragged it the rest of the way inside and flopped on the bunk. His arms and legs were rubber, and he was thirsty, wishing he had splurged on a can of Coke. Well, you couldn’t complain about fresh mountain water. If you were going to live in the woods, you had to forget about things like cola.

The inside was just as cold. He started the old stove and lugged up another bucket of water. Heated some soup.

The dog licked his chin.

He was just curling under his blanket when he heard the wolves, far, very far away, from one of the distant valleys. The long empty call tickled the hairs on the back of his neck. The dog was alert, her ears and hackles up, as she stood at the window. For the first time since he found the cabin, he thought about how far it was to the town.

“Come here, girl.” He patted the hard bunk, and with one last inspection out the window, she came and curled up with him. He reminded himself that it might be a good idea to fasten the wooden shutters at night from now on.

But he was a light sleeper. They wouldn’t be able to come near without his hearing them. Just like at the home. He always heard them when they came at night.

He lay there remembering the nightmares.

He remembered being in bed, listening to the sounds of the Home. The TV murmured in the lounge. The pipes gurgled as someone flushed the toilet or took a shower. He would lie there, waiting, waiting. Gradually, the night sounds would be fewer and fewer. The closing of a distant door. Cars starting as the attendants changed shifts.

He would wait.

The real nightmare when his doorknob would faintly creak and turn.

He tried to shut it out of his mind, but the voice whispered hoarsely, “If you tell, I’ll kill you.”

The boy tightened his arm around the dog.

That was all over now.

He was safe. Away from the people who said they would help him but didn’t.

If the wolves howled again, he didn’t hear it. He was too exhausted after his long day and had gone into a deep sleep.

 

Chapter Five

The Deer

 

The winter deepened, and snow came.

He learned how to use the snowshoes that were hung in the eaves. When he pulled them down, he was pelted by a shower of nuts and twigs from an abandoned animal nest.

“Blah,” he said, shaking his head to get rid of the pieces that had gotten into his eyes and mouth.

He got himself a deer.

One day there it was, a startled shadow down by the pond. The minute he squeezed the trigger, he was sorry. The needle-sharp crack of the shot echoed and echoed in the pristine stillness long after the little body had dropped, legs crumbling, never changing its wide-eyed expression.

He stood there, stunned. In his mind, he could still see it standing, delicate and motionless, a creature of the wild.

The dog stood at his side.

“Why did I go and do that?” he said.

She looked at him and whined.

In slow motion, he walked to the brown heap. It really was dead and a good shot at that. Nothing else to do but to finish the job, but his hands were shaking.

 

Chapter Six

Snow Days

 

Cutting it up was tough work.

He managed to do it, though, and carried the meat parts to the cabin. The remains he left by the stream.

“For the eagles,” he told the dog.

They had fresh meat for supper. It was disgusting. The taste was strong and filled his nose. “I think I’d prefer Burger Whoopee,” he told the dog who was gnawing a big bone contentedly.

He ate it anyway because he was hungry, and he knew he’d have to like it sooner or later if he was going to live in the woods. Maybe next time in town he’d buy a bottle of Tabasco.

In the morning snow, huge, dog-like prints surrounded the bones, what was left of them. The footprints were three times the size of the dog’s; they were as big as the boy’s hand.

He hunkered down, the rifle across his knees, and surveyed the valley. Snow as far as he could see. Snow and blue sky and snow-white clouds and gray spruces making snow points. The air smelled of snow.

The pair of eagles circled easily, and there was a faraway plane trailing a white vapor cloud.

The footprints disturbed him. He was not afraid but uneasy.

Maybe he should stay inside. Mr. Flynn had said the wolves would tear a man apart, just for fun. And here he was, not a man but a boy and all alone at that. That he hadn’t heard them, even though they had been so close by, disturbed him. He had so much to learn.

How many were they?

He couldn’t tell. The snow was all trampled, prints running into each other. Did it matter anyway? They were so much bigger and cunning than he, and they belonged here.

He was tempted to track them.

Better to leave them alone.

They were a part of the wild he didn’t understand.

The snow-white clouds were building from the west and darkening the far mountains.

He stood up and stretched. “Well, girl,” he said. “I guess we’d better lay in some extra firewood.”

Good thing. A blizzard swallowed the mountain. For three days, there was nothing outside but white white white. And wind, the howling wind.

Snow crept under the door and into a corner under the eaves where a joist had loosened. He plugged the leaks with some old rags.

He read.

He inspected the cabin. There was no clue to the previous occupant even though the cabin had been simply but well equipped, and well cared for. It had obviously been empty for quite some time when he had arrived.

There had been nearly everything he needed. A couple of rusty cooking pans that came clean when he rubbed them with sand in the stream. An ax and a shovel. Most of the blankets had been shredded by mice but the wooden bunk was sound, and he soon got used to sleeping on it.

It was heaven compared to sleeping at the Home. He still had bad dreams at night, but at least when he woke up, they went away. He was here now, and safe. This hard bunk was more home to him than anything had ever been.

He had found the gun behind the bunk. It hadn’t looked like much, but all the books said you needed a gun in the woods. Not like the Home in the city where you got in big trouble for having a gun. Even jail.

The first time he had hiked into town he had brought the gun so he could buy bullets.

“Kill yersef with that there gun,” Old Rat had said from under the hunting cap, his nose twitching.

He had thought they were going to take it away. But instead, Mr. Flynn had sold him the right bullets and Old Rat had cleaned and oiled it and showed him how to shoot.

He lay on the bunk, hands behind his head, staring at the roof. Tied to a beam on the side were bunches of dried leafy things. He hadn’t much bothered with them. They smelled earthy and crumbled when he touched them, making a black powder on his fingers. Whoever lived here before must have had a use for them, but the boy didn’t even know what they were. He must remember to get a book on herbs and plants next trip.

He read some more. He talked to the dog.

He wrote some stories about his wolf family. Write about what you know, his teacher had said. Write about what you know.

But the things he knew, he couldn’t write about.

Once he tried.

He carefully wrote, “If you tell, I’ll kill you.” He closed his eyes, and he was in a hot, close, dark place. He could see the whites of the fierce eyes close to his. He could smell the foul breath, the sweat, the odor of onions and rancid grape juice. He felt the strong hands twisting his tee shirt tight around his neck.

“If you tell, I’ll kill you.” And then silent laughter shaking in the dark. And the door to his room closing.

 

Chapter Seven

Food

 

When the wind stopped, he was unable to open the door. The cabin was buried.

No big deal. He climbed out the window and dug his way out. The dog helped and ran around like a maniac, tossing snow in the air with her nose, arching her back, waving all of her feet in the air.

During the three days, the boy had calculated how much store-bought food he had left and realized it was getting low. He decided he’d better get out hunting and lay in a supply. There seemed to be plenty of rabbits.

He couldn’t believe his good luck when he saw a small herd of deer by the river, scraping the snow and ice with their hooves.

He watched for a bit, admiring their rich brown silhouettes, before he dropped one of them, a skinny doe. The others skittered away. The doe crumbled to the ground.

Tears were on his cheeks. Something, a living creature, had just been alive, and now it was dead, by his own hand. He waited a while before walking down to the river.

“Sorry,” he said, running his hand down the soft furry neck. The fur was still warm.

He turned to the dog. “I wonder if it ever gets easier.”

The dog wagged, but she was engrossed in a sniffing expedition.

He tied the legs and hoisted it over a tree branch to let the blood drain. It was a lot heavier than it looked with its little skinny legs but the book had shown how to raise it up by making a pulley system from branches. He just wished it would close its eyes.

He went to work with his knife. His hands were stiff and cold. He hated the way it felt. Soon he gave up. He had only a small amount of bloody looking meat, but the smell made him gag.

He cooked some for supper, and it tasted as bad as it smelled.

 

Chapter Eight

The Wolf Family

 

This time he saw the wolves.

“Leftovers for the birds,” he had told the dog when he had quit cutting the carcass. He looked at the distant mountains, brilliant pink in the sunlight. “Or maybe the wolves. They gotta eat too.”

He had heard them occasionally these last few nights, and the wild calling still frightened him. But he was also intrigued.

Wolves, he had read, had strong family units. They take care of one another. The whole pack cared for the pups, giving them attention and loving affection.

Sometimes he tried to imagine what it would be like to be part of a pack, or a family, where the members cared for each other. There would be brothers and sisters to play with. Others to trust. A mother and father who brought home food. And played. And cared.

He would dream of running silently through the trees on padded feet, the wind brushing his ears, the cold tickling his nose.

This time, their chill howling startled him at twilight as he was scraping down the antlers near the stove. More than a few feet away from the stove, the cabin was as cold as outdoors. He had already battened down for the night, but he went and opened the door.

There was a slash of brilliant red sun across the mountaintop, and huge stars hung on a luminescent purple sky. Although the trees were lost in black shadow, the snow still reflected the crimson and blue of the sky.

Ooooooooooooo.

The long note hung silvery in the air like another star.

And an answering call.

“They’re singing,” the boy whispered to the dog, who, after a half-hearted low growl, had retreated under the bunk.

He stepped out in front of the cabin cautiously, prepared to dash back in if necessary. The wolves were dark silhouettes cavorting around the remains of the deer, like dancing. He was awed by their size. Even from up here they looked as big as the buck, and as graceful, though thick and dog-like. Growling and snarling ripped the night air.

They made short work of the carcass, carrying off on silent padded paws what they didn’t eat. He had read that wolves bring back food to others in the pack who are injured or too young to hunt for themselves.

As the black shadows slipped away, the wolf at the rear of the pack paused and looked back at the boy. For an instant, a glimmer of light reflected on its eyes, two brilliant diamonds in the dark. Their eyes held and then the wolf was gone, leaving a lone long cry hovering over the blue snow.

In the bright of the day, he knew there was no danger, but the memory stayed with him, haunting him at night. They were magnificent animals, these wolves, and at night he heard growls and snarls in his dreams and woke up.

Startled, he listened.

The only sound was the wind whispering in the evergreens.

He closed his eyes. He felt good.

Nobody was going to come for him in his sleep. No one was going to silently open the door. No one was going to sneak over to his bed.

He tried to put the nightmares out of his head.

“If you tell, I’ll kill you.”

It was all past now.

Here in the wilderness where most people would be afraid, he was safe.

 

Chapter Nine

The Long Winter

 

The winter stretched endlessly. It was going on longer than he thought it would, longer than he had expected. The falling snow covered the sun for days at a time.

Although he was satisfied with the solitude, he was getting worried about food. Hunting was hard. The small animals had gone underground, and deer had disappeared. He couldn’t even find tracks, rabbit or squirrel, but sometimes he would find evidence of the wolf pack having passed by. Were they, too, finding game scarce? Even brilliant sunny days were too cold to be outside very long.

He carved wolf shapes and deer shapes from the firewood. He reread all his books and magazines and started a journal and tried writing more stories, stories about his pretend wolf family. He would have been completely happy if he hadn’t been worried about the food supply. Come spring, he would have to get himself a radio too, if only for the weather reports.

Then when the situation seemed to be getting urgent, and he was considering trying to get into town, a thaw hit. The snow cover shrank, and the river rose under the relentless sun. Pointed spruce punctured their white blanket, and the south slope turned a gray-green.

 

Chapter Ten

The Plunge

 

Dog and boy were delighted.

“Tomorrow,” said the boy. “Tomorrow we’ll hike into town. Once we reach the road, we should be all right, and we can stay there overnight if we have to. Just think. Doggie treats and a Snickers bar and some new magazines.” He hauled inside a supply of firewood and an extra bucket of water. “So we can sleep late when we get back,” he grinned.

But winter wasn’t ready to leave yet. By morning the temperature dove again, and ice coated the snow. Everywhere the ice was like glass, gleaming in the sunlight.

The boy thought he might be okay if he bundled up and kept moving but he didn’t know about the dog. Her scruffy brown fur had thickened but it was mighty cold out, and it could be dangerous to make her take the long journey to town.

However, if he left her behind, she might think he had deserted her, especially if he had to stay over. She was all excited, dancing in circles around the cabin, sensing the journey.

He ruffled her ears. “I guess we’re in this together, old girl,” he said.

The going was tough. He hadn’t hiked ten feet when the snowshoes went out from under him, landing him on his backside.

The dog laughed and licked his face, scrabbling around him, her paws slipping and sliding.

Undaunted, he edged along for half a mile. It was going to take much longer than he thought if he wanted to make the journey on his feet. The glare of the sun was making his head ache.

A rabbit bounded across an open field. The boy pulled out his rifle and shot, the sharp crack echoing in the stillness.

“Nuts, I missed,” he snarled at the dog, stamping his feet. A mistake.

He lost his balance, and the rifle flew into the air. Half on his back, he slid down the slope and dropped into a stream bed. The snowshoes skittered away like wild mice, and his foot broke through the ice, the jagged edges slicing like glass into his knee.

 

Chapter Eleven

The Struggle

 

He looked calmly at the brilliant red fanning out on the white ice. What a color, he thought. Brighter even than Christmas paper, than a Coke can, than even a cardinal against the green grass in summer.

It didn’t hurt, but his heart began to thud, so violently his ears throbbed. The ice held the leg.

He had to let himself sink into the water to unloose the leg.

Hauling himself up the embankment was slow work, and a slash of blood painted the snow. When he reached level ground, he finally dared to look.

The dog was anxiously sniffing him.

“I think I can see bone, girl,” he said, fighting the urge to shake.

Lying down, he took off his coat, his shirt, and wrapped the shirt around the leg, tying it tightly with the sleeves. The shirt was stained red before he could get the coat back on. He couldn’t seem to feel the cold air.

“This is not good,” he said. His voice startled him, as if somebody else, somebody outside him, was talking. “Let’s go back.”

Before he went very far, the blood was seeping over the knot. He had read you should elevate wounds.

“Maybe if I sit,” he said. He slid himself along for a bit, sitting and using his good leg to push, and the flow seemed to slow.

But he was getting giddy. With a morbid fascination, he kept turning to measure the red trail he was leaving on the side of the mountain.

At first he wasn’t cold, the shock had numbed him. By the time he thought about it, he couldn’t feel his fingers or the foot on his injured leg. And he was overcome by an urge to sleep.

He tried crawling, but that aggravated the bleeding and sent waves of pain up his leg.

He closed his eyes, and the ice felt like a soft feather bed. Only for just a minute …

The dog was nuzzling his face.

“Okay, girl. We won’t stop again till we get to the cabin.”

On he went. And on.

She crawled on her belly next to him, licking his cheek or nudging his ear if he put his head down too long.

“We can do it,” he told her when she whimpered. He tried to smile, but his lips were stiff. “We can do it … do it …?”

Just a few feet at a time.

“We can do it.” He kept that in his head. If he didn’t get back to the cabin, who would take care of the dog?

The sun didn’t even pause. It crossed westward, treetop to treetop, completely ignoring the boy, pulling the long shadows of twilight behind.

“It’s not that much farther,” he said to the dog.

 

Chapter Twelve

Dreaming

 

When he woke up, he was lying on the cabin floor, in a pool of dried blood, the dog curled next to him. The fire had gone out, and the cold was so intense he thought lead weights were pressing his body to the floor.

And when he moved, the pain in his leg seemed to spread into his stomach, and he threw up. The wracking of his body started the wound bleeding again.

He tied a piece of towel around the shirt to slow the bleeding. The twilight had faded fast, and the cabin was a black hole.

He started a fire, every motion excruciating, thankful he had brought wood in earlier. The warmth of the flames did little to relieve the ice inside him, so he lay down on the bunk, making himself a nest of the blankets and his extra shirts.

“Don’t you ever talk?”

The harsh voice startled him awake.

When he opened his eyes, there was nothing but blackness and the fire was dead. He struggled around, this time making a bigger fire and lay down again.

The voice came back. He was at the Home.

“Don’t you ever talk?” Crockett Haskell poked the boy. His yellow teeth appeared in a grin. Crock’s eyes were quick and greedy like a ferret, darting around, looking for what he could play with next.

“You speak English, Kid?”

The others around him snickered.

Crock leaned closer. “You don’t talk. You look funny. You even smell funny.” He wiggled his nose.

Somebody behind him said, “Ugh!” and there were more snickers.

The stale bread and gravy smell of supper drifted in as Randolph opened the door. Crock gave the boy a last vicious poke and hissed, “Dummy.”

What was the big deal about talking? He should talk like Crock? Mean and dirty. Talk about television. About each other. About how much they hated their parents.

Instead, the boy was quiet. Listening. Watching. He learned a lot from listening and watching.

Like who to avoid.

Crock was one of them.

Crock and his friends sometimes waited for him after school. That first time, they threw him behind the bushes and began to kick him. Then something scared them away. They disappeared. The boy painfully got himself back to the home and never said a word.

He learned to watch out after that. Often he stayed in the library. There he had discovered the mountains, the outdoors, the wilderness, where there was challenge but also order. Harsh but understandable. He would be lost for hours reading about hiking, mountaineering, survival.

As he sat in the library, at a table where he was out of sight of the door, but where he could watch who came in, he could smell the crisp, cold air. He could feel the wind in his face, pinching at his cheeks, whipping the dark tangled hair away from his eyes.

He could imagine the solitude.

“Time to leave,” Mr. Mello the librarian would say, and the mountain and the forest would evaporate.

Mr. Mello usually walked him out.

None of the kids was interested in waiting too long, so by the time he left the library, it was safe. And none of them would enter the library.

Safe?

Back to the Home.

He walked slowly. Around the side to the back porch, avoiding the office.

He opened the back door. Cabbage and bacon greeted him, and Barbara.

A stringy, tough witch, Barbara put in her time and got paid. Randolph was nicer, but he had his hands full with the druggies. Nobody paid much attention to the boy because he was so quiet.

Nobody except Mr. Brody.

Mr. Brody with his hardboiled egg eyes, his greasy hotdog fingers, smelling of rancid grape juice and onions.

 

Chapter Thirteen

The Visit

 

The next time the boy saw daylight, the sun was reflecting light on the cabin ceiling.

He was too sick to eat, but he gave the dog some crackers and the last dog biscuit, and added to the fire.

When he woke up again, his leg was as big around as a telephone pole, about as clumsy, and throbbing with the intensity of a bass drum. The wound began to bleed when he tried to move.

He burrowed back into the nest and watched the window change color.

Sometimes there was sunshine, then a star or two, then pale gray. Was that dawn or dusk?

Finally, the rattle of rain on the roof brought him back. The leg still felt big, but he realized he must be better because his stomach was growling.

The dog eagerly shared crackers with him.

He put one of the buckets outside to catch the rainwater and repeatedly blessed himself for having brought in extra firewood.

“We have a problem here,” he told the dog. “There’s not much food.” He checked the granola tin, which was nearly empty, and tossed the cracker box into the pile of kindling. The dog stuck her nose in the box and licked the final crumbs.

He had to move real slow. A couple of times the bleeding started again.

“We have to decide,” he said, scratching the dog’s ears. “Do we stay here and starve to death, or do we try to get back down the mountain and bleed to death? If I wait longer, the wound will be more healed, but I’ll … we’ll be too weak from hunger.”

She licked his face and smiled. Whatever he decided was okay with her.

Later on, he was ripped awake in the dark by the long ring of a wolf howl, so close it could be right in the cabin. He felt the dog tremble beside him.

He was afraid to move.

Another howl, just as close, split the dark.

They’re coming after me, he thought. They know I’m sick.

Wolves were supposed to move silently, but he could hear rustling, scratching, a snarl. Shadows crossed the patch of reflected moonlight on the ceiling, smooth, sharklike shapes that flowed into one another.

A loud scratching and sniffling at the door made his hair rise. A low growl.

The dog trembled, and her hair stood up. She burrowed deep into the blanket nest. The scratching claws raked the door, and a curdling howl seared the air in the cabin. As he watched, the door trembled and the wrought iron latch rattled.

Then they were on the roof. A basket tucked under the eaves dropped with a thud as the vibration loosed it. A raining of pebbles hit the stove.

The boy was afraid to move. He had never known such icy fear. Not as he climbed the mountain leaving a trail of blood. Not when he snuck into Mr. Brody’s office, where he knew the money was hidden. Not even the night he had been chased out of the railroad yard by a man with a nightstick. He couldn’t even feel his arms and legs.

The shuffling and sniffing on the roof was louder than thunder, endless.

A gust of wind rattled the window. Then the wolves set up a circle of howling, long haunting notes overlapping and harmonizing with one another, rising and falling in an untamed song.

The dog nuzzled the boy’s hand.

Maybe if we don’t breathe, they’ll think we’re dead and go away, he thought, holding his breath. But that made his heart pound wildly, and he was afraid they would hear it. Just as suddenly as they had come, it was silent. He lay there, his eyes wide, afraid to stir.

Before he knew it, the sun was in his eyes.

 

Chapter Fourteen

A Gift

 

“I think they’re gone,” he whispered, hardly daring to believe it.

The dog crawled up and jumped out of bed. She shook herself starting with her nose and working down to her tail. Then she helped herself to a long sloppy drink from the water bucket.

Thirst satisfied, she set up a thorough sniffing investigation of the air around the door, tail wagging slightly. She was intrigued and began to scratch the wood. When the boy didn’t respond, she barked cheerfully.

Remembering how terrified she had been during the night, the boy figured it must be safe now, or she wouldn’t be so carefree.

The trip to the door was cold and slow. The fire had died down and his leg, his whole body, was stiff and sore. He felt like his head was floating.

As soon as he unlatched the door, the dog pried it open with her nose and dashed into the bright snow.

He wasn’t prepared for what he found outside.

She went straight as an arrow to a hunk of meat, the haunch of something, a deer or elk, lying directly in front of the door.

The boy didn’t know what it was at first. It looked like the thick branch of a tree except for some pale blood stains on the snow. Then he saw the hoof on one end and the bone sticking out, crudely hacked on the other. He stared, seeing yet not seeing it.

The dog looked at him, whimpered, barked, and, since the boy didn’t move, decided to have some for breakfast.

Her hungry gnawing brought him back.

Someone had left them some fresh meat, some food.

“Hey!”

The dog stopped reluctantly, licking her chops. He reached for his knife at his belt, only to find air. The knife was somewhere inside.

He just couldn’t believe it. Real meat. Who could have left it? He poked the fire, added wood, found his knife. Skinning the haunch was slow work because his hands were so shaky and the dizziness made him afraid he would cut himself.

“I’ve lost enough blood,” he said, trying to joke. The dog wagged.

He set the meat to cooking and flopped on the bunk, exhausted, puzzling over the unexpected gift.

“Who could it be, girl? There’s no tracks out there ’cept the wolf prints.” He scratched her ears, thinking.

“No,” he said. The dog flattened her ears, thinking she had done something bad.

Then a few minutes later: “It couldn’t, could it?”

He thought back to the day he had brought down the deer, to the night he had watched the wolves go at the remains of the carcass he had left. He had seen them take food back for others in the pack.

Did they, knowing he was hurt, bring food to him? He dragged himself back to the door and even in the bright sunlight he could find no traces of any other footprints, only the padded patterns of the wolf paws.

He smiled into the sunlight, feeling a part of the sunlight, a part of the mountain, a sense of belonging he had never experienced before.

He was meant to be here on this mountain in this very cabin. He should never have been in that close, stifling Home, which had been more like a prison than a shelter.

 

Chapter Fifteen

A Journey

 

A sharp pain in his leg reminded him he was still in crisis and he hobbled back inside.

He couldn’t believe he had disliked the taste of venison. It was most delicious, and he licked his fingers, feeling better than he had since the accident. The dog gobbled her share and settled in front of the stove to gnaw the big bone.

There was enough left for a couple of days, and some broth. The weather seemed to be warming. Maybe in a few days, he would be strong enough, and if the snow melted enough, for him to try to walk down. The leg didn’t seem to be healing right, and he knew it hadn’t been properly cleaned, but he was afraid to take off the shirt bandage. It bled easily, and the bandage seemed to be stuck to his leg.

He piled up the fire—the wood was getting low—and slept round the clock. He woke up still dizzy. The sky was dark and heavy with the smell of snow.

He and the dog had breakfast, washed down with the broth, but he was worried. He let the dog out to romp around, trying to decide if he should risk trying to get down to the stream for water. He would need it soon, but he didn’t want to start the leg bleeding again.

If he wrapped a shirt around the handle of the shovel, maybe he could use it for a crutch.

It was uncomfortable, but he managed to get a ways without breaking open the wound. He finally got down to the stream and filled the bucket.

Carrying it back was a different story. He couldn’t seem to make a step without spilling it, and a few flakes were beginning to float in the air.

He wasn’t a third of the way back to the cabin when he heard a buzz. He shook his head, afraid he was imagining things.

It wasn’t a buzz, it was a roar, like the sound of a chainsaw, echoing first from the low clouds, then from the invisible distant mountain.

Suddenly it was on top of him, two black snowmobiles cresting the rise and coming to a stop between him and the cabin.

The man in the lead slid his goggles atop his head and called out, “Hey, boy.” It was Mr. Flynn, his white mustache icy, his cheeks carnation red.

He swung his leg over and settled the helmet on the seat.

“Hey,” he called, grinning. “Thought we’d pay you a visit. Got any coffee?”

The boy dropped the bucket. Then he sagged against his makeshift crutch, nearly falling on his bad leg. The dizziness all came back.

Mr. Flynn scooped him up like a bag of chips and carried him into the cabin. “Hey, nasty leg there,” he said heartily. “How ’bout comin’ into town. Big blizzard comin’.”

The boy nodded. “I can’t go without my dog,” he said.

He heard the two men talking.

“We’re afraid to take you on the skidoo but the storm’s starting and who knows when we can get back. Supposed to be the storm of the century. Might be okay if I splint it up, but might hurt.”

“It’s okay,” said the boy, “just as long as I can bring the dog.”

Mr. Flynn laughed, his deep hearty laugh. “Of course.”

Mr. Flynn and the other man lashed the boy’s leg to the ax handle and secured it to the seat of the second snowmobile. They wrapped the dog in a blanket and let the boy hold her.

He didn’t remember much of the trip except that the snow got real thick real fast.

Mr. Flynn had to take the dog and, because the boy couldn’t seem to stay upright, they tied his hands around the other man’s waist. It seemed that the roar of the engines, the white, the cold would never end.

The leg began to throb, to bleed.

And then they reached the road.

Mr. Flynn had radioed ahead. A Jeep and a truck were waiting, and they unlashed the boy, carried him through the driving snow, and set him on a soft bed in the back of the Jeep. He closed his eyes.

“Where’s the dog?” he murmured.

He fell asleep with someone gently cutting away the old bandages and the dog’s nose nuzzled up to his cheek.

 

Chapter Sixteen

Recovery

 

They wouldn’t let the dog in the hospital.

They wouldn’t let Old Rat in either, Mr. Flynn said, unless he left his grungy, dirty hat and his pipe outside.

The boy’s leg, propped up on the bed, was wrapped in a white and blue plastic splint fastened with Velcro. He was glad the leg had been cared for, and that he was warm and the food was plentiful, but still, he supposed this would mean the end. They would be bound to send him back, to the Home or wherever runaway boys were sent. He would have done just fine if he hadn’t hurt his leg.

Mr. Flynn dwarfed the metal folding chair he pulled up to the side of the bed. He handed the boy a Snickers bar and unrolled a half dozen shiny new magazines. The boy grinned.

“You’ll be out in a couple of days,” Mr. Flynn boomed. “Quite a gash you had there. We hadn’t seen you in a while and were a mite worried.”

“How did you find me?”

“Old Rat. He knew where you were.”

“How did he know? I never told anyone.”

Mr. Flynn leaned back, smiling. “That’s his cabin. Near sixty years he lived up there.”

“But how did he know? How did he know I was there?”

“The gun. It was his gun you brought in that first day. Guess he thought it was pretty funny, him teaching you to clean and handle his own gun.”

The boy puzzled over this. So Old Rat had known all along where he was.

“Where’s my dog?” asked the boy.

“She’s just fine. Told me to say hi.” Mr. Flynn chuckled at his own joke. He patted the Velcro splint. “She’s stayin’ with me and the missus. Where you’ll be staying till we can send you back. We’re still digging out from that whopper of a blizzard. See ya later, boy.”

 

Chapter Seventeen

Going Back

 

Till we can send you back. So he was going back.

Of course. Nowadays you have to be somewhere. The law says you have to go to school, to belong somewhere. Grownups couldn’t ignore that.

Well, he could. Wherever they sent him, he’d run away again.

Old Rat came to visit. He’d snuck in the pipe in his pocket and sat there with a devilish grin, whisking it out of sight whenever a nurse came by. He didn’t say too much but listened while the boy talked about the buck, the cold winter … the wolves.

“There’s them ascared a wolves,” he said, munching the pipe and nodding. “But they ain’t never hurt me.” His nose twitched, and he scratched it with his sleeve.

Then the boy went to stay at the Flynns’ house.

Mrs. Flynn was like her husband, big and hearty and matter-of-fact. The boy would have enjoyed being there if he hadn’t been so despondent about going back. He was angry with the dog. She was so obviously happy, well fed, and companionable with the other household dogs.

Almost angry. She had been so glad to see him she had wagged at both ends. And she wouldn’t sleep any place but by his bed—on it, once Mrs. Flynn had gone to sleep.

One morning, Mr. Flynn said, “The roads are all clear so we’ll be sending you back today.”

So fast? His heart pitched.

“You come on up the store this mornin’ and we’ll set you up with what you need.”

The melting snow made rivers on the edge of the road as he trudged along, unaware of the brilliant blue sky, the towering clouds, even the warmth of the new sun on his bare head. The dog circled, danced, chased a flock of doves whistling into the air.

None of it mattered. They were sending him back to the Home.

 

Chapter Eighteen

The Gift

 

Old Rat was on the porch, resting his feet on a carton of assorted objects, a tin cup, some folded clothing, a can of tobacco.

His face was crinkled by a grin so wide, his cheeks swelled up like golf balls. “Mornin’, boy.”

“Good morning,” said the boy. He felt like he should say something. He had never properly thanked Old Rat for sending help when he needed it. He paused. “I wanted to thank you, Mr. R … Rat.”

Old Rat laughed. “You can call me Old Rat. Everyone does. After all, it’s my name, my real name.”

“Old Rat?”

“Ole Ratmines. Son of Lucy and Roland Ratmines.”

“Thank you, Old Rat,” said the boy. But his heart felt like wet mud. He probably wouldn’t get to see Old Rat anymore when they brought him back to the Home. “’Tweren’t nothin’,” said Old Rat.

Inside Mr. Flynn had already set aside a couple of boxes of cereal and crackers and a tin of dog biscuits. “Go pick out some shirts, boy,” he called as he counted out shotgun shells to a man in a flannel jacket.

It didn’t matter what he picked out. They’d probably just steal everything at the Home anyway. When he returned empty handed to the counter, Mr. Flynn came out and put his arm around the boy’s shoulder.

“Come on, you need warm clothes. You can pay me later if that’s what you’re worried about.” He scooped up a couple of packages of cotton-lined wool undershirts.

“Well, I’m not sure what I’ll need.” He looked at the plaid flannel on the racks and thought about the printed tee shirts most of the boys at the Home wore.

“You’ll need warm things,” said Mr. Flynn decisively. “Spring is slow comin’ in these here parts.”

In these parts?

“Here?” said the boy.

Mr. Flynn nodded. “Well, up on the mountain. That cabin doesn’t exactly have central heating. Why? Where did you think you were going?”

“I thought … I just thought you … well, never mind.”

Mr. Flynn was still looking at him. “Did you think we were going to send you back where you came from?”

The boy nodded, his eyes stinging with tears.

Mr. Flynn sat down heavily on the stack of roofing shingles. “While you were in the hospital, I did some investigating. I had some friends in the city ask around about any boy your age who might be missing.”

The boy wiped his eyes and looked at Mr. Flynn.

“You see, I wondered if somewhere there was a family that was missing you. I know if I had a boy like you, I’d go crazy if he ran away.” He shifted on the shingles. “Well, I found out about the place where you come from … the Home. It seems that there was a lot of trouble there after you left. The man running the place, a Mr. Brody, done got himself arrested. He was, uh, he was hurting some of the boys that lived there, the boys in his care.”

Mr. Flynn looked at the boy steadily. “He hurt you, boy?” Mr. Flynn’s eyes were narrowed, but kindness and concern shone in the depths.

The boy was silent, but his eyes answered. Finally, he whispered, “He said he’d kill me.”

Mr. Flynn put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “He won’t kill you. He won’t hurt you no more. I been thinking and I made a decision. I’m not going to send you back. Of course not. Any fool can see you belong in the woods and what’s even better is Old Rat can go back up, now you’re here to watch out for him. That is, if you want to.”

The boy nodded, hardly daring to believe what he was hearing. “What about … school?” he asked. “And stuff like that?”

Mr. Flynn sat back. “The woods will be your school,” he said. “You read and write just fine, and you’ll learn the kinds of things ain’t never gonna be in books. Old Rat will teach you. The old ways, the ways of the land, will live on. Nobody knows about those kinds of things anymore. Later, when anyone wants to know, you’ll be the one to teach ’em, boy.”

The boy smiled slightly. “I’ll write a book,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to write a book.”

Mr. Flynn grinned and suddenly crunched the boy to his chest, pounding his back and knocking his breath away. Then he held the boy at arm’s length and studied his face. The boy was laughing and crying at the same time.

“Old Rat don’t need too much watchin’ out for but can’t chop wood like he used to, and he forgets to take his medicine. He’s not happy here in town. He needs the woods. With you, he can fi nish his days in the place where he wants to be, where he spent his whole life.” Mr. Flynn tactfully got up and went to the rack of shirts. He pulled a few off the rack while the boy wiped his tears on his sleeve. “What do you say? Do you want to go back to the cabin with Old Rat?”

“Sure. Sure I do.” The boy hugged the shirts.

“You can learn more about the woods from that old coot than you can ever learn from any school.” Mr. Flynn headed toward a new customer. “Go try on some of those wool pants,” he ordered, “and then run back to the house and tell the missus to pack sandwiches and whatever stuff you have at the house.”

“Yessir.”

Old Rat was still rocking in the sunshine, scratching the dog behind the ears, when the boy came out. “We’ll be home soon, boy,” Old Rat said, his nose twitching.

“Home,” said the boy. “We’ll be home.”

He breathed in the sharp air and let the sun warm his face. The sky was a brilliant blue and puff y white clouds piled over the peak of a distant mountain. The rivers of melted snow sparkled along the edge of the road.

“See ya in a bit, Old Rat,” said the boy, playfully punching the old man’s arm.

Old Rat laughed as the boy bounded down the steps even though his one leg was still stiff . He awkwardly raced the dog to the nearest puddle.

“Hey, boy,” Old Rat yelled after him as he headed toward the Flynn house.

“Hey what?” the boy shouted turning around. He skipped backward for a few steps.

“Hey, boy, you got a name?

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Margo Lemieux has been involved in creative endeavors since the first grade when she got into trouble for “decorating” her workbook. After graduating from Boston University, she worked as a graphic designer, newspaper correspondent, children’s book author and illustrator, and other interesting things. Her book FULL WORM MOON was described in the  New York Times as “well-written.” Currently a professor at Lasell College, she has taught workshops in the Attleboro Arts Museum, Lake Mead National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Fuller Craft Museum, Hang Do Studio, Hanoi, Vietnam, and Rhode Island School of Design.

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The Otchka

Noah Weisz

On a windy autumn morning in the city of Gholàr, Par and his mother set off for the Otchka. They left their small apartment pushing and pulling a massive old cart that shuddered and groaned at every cobblestone bump. Objects bounced, straining against the ropes that tied them down—a frayed velvet armchair, a wide wooden bench, a bicycle, two mattresses, a pair of brass candlesticks, several empty picture frames. So much more. They’d been packing the cart all night. As dawn broke, Par had started tossing in pretty much everything he could find, everything he had known for all fifteen years of his life; they didn’t have time to sift any longer. The Otchka opened early. By seven o’clock all the best spots would be taken.

Neither of them said a word. Par had nothing to say, only questions no one could answer. Why do people hate us so much? Couldn’t we just wait to see if things get better? What if I assassinate Muntaro? What will it be like in Velingen?

His mom had finally found a man who would forge passports for them, for a price. Their appointment was that evening. They would have to sell everything. This should not have felt so awful; Par had known they would have to leave everything behind anyway, once they got their train tickets. But the idea of selling that armchair, where he used to sit and read books in the early morning before school and wait for the clink of the milkman delivering his jug at their door, the idea of trading it in for anything, of knowing that someone else would get to sit in it from now on—somehow, that was too much.

“Who’s going to want this old junk anyway?” Par muttered as they turned a corner.

“Consider it junk, and no one will,” said his mother. “Now hurry, it’s after seven.”

They rolled the cart faster, winding down the narrower roads leading to the outskirts. His mother’s polished heels clicked on the stones; she always dressed well, always stood proud, no matter how little money they had. No matter that they were only going to the flea market.

The Otchka came into view.

It was an enormous grassy expanse at the very edge of Gholàr, the last human thing before the red-gold forests at the base of the mountains. It was already crammed with people. Twisting row upon twisting row of people buying and selling wares, some in rickety wooden stalls, others in wagons, others on sprawling blankets on the ground. The noise was frightening—the smell, much worse. Horse manure and chickens were the least of it—the sweat of thousands of desperate people hung in the air, mingling with the thick sweetness wafting from the baskets of the grinning cherry vendor at the entrance.

Par’s stomach turned. They guided their cart through the throngs of people, scouting for an available spot.

“Dirty roach,” a voice shot at them.

Someone spat at Par. It landed on his cheek. Another man whistled at his mother.

Par spat back, as usual. Several people backed away.

Roaches. That was a term invented by President Muntaro. It meant the Tovari. The people with yellow eyes. The people who had come down from the mountains five hundred years ago, speaking a strange lilting language and worshipping unpronounceable gods, and who, Muntaro insisted, were fouling up the beautiful culture of Gholaria.

“There,” said Par’s mother.

She was pointing to a narrow patch of grass and dry leaves between two blankets. On one, an old woman was selling tarnished silverware. On the other, a young Tovari man was sitting on a stool, tuning a violin. Across from them a large man at a large stall was selling lottery tickets to a long line of hopefuls.

Par set down the wheelbarrow in the free spot. Together, he and his mom began unpacking their lives onto the grass. The old woman sat stonily on her blanket, crosslegged, ignoring them. The violinist was bending his ear so close to the strings, Par imagined there was a beetle there whispering some secret.

“Outstanding antique picture frame,” Par’s mom called out, somehow putting on a wide, bright smile, “solid mahogany, one hundred and seven years old!”

Par knew perfectly well that the frame was made of stained oak, and though it certainly looked ancient, it was probably younger than his mother.

“Satin pillow, authentic Eastern design, just fifty kriblers!”

The deep blue pillow was actually satin, and it was the fanciest thing they owned. It had been a wedding gift from Par’s father’s parents. Par had never met them. He’d never met his father either, for that matter. He’d died from a blow to the head during a vicious street brawl with a man who’d insulted the Tovari.

Par sighed. The violinist had lifted his head now and was doing something to his bow, rubbing the hairs with something that looked like chalk. Par had never been up close to a violin before. It gleamed golden-brown in the early sunlight. Probably the violinist polished it as often as Mom polished her shoes.

“Fifty kriblers for that thing?” said a middle-aged woman, approaching them. “Now that’s a roach deal if I ever saw one!”

“Good morning to you, miss,” said Par’s mother, still smiling. “It’s quite a bargain, actually. Here, feel it.”

She tried to hand the woman the pillow, but the woman recoiled.

“Don’t come near me. I wouldn’t buy that thing for a penny more than twenty-five kriblers.”

“That’s all right. I can assure you, someone else will buy it for fifty. Have a good day, miss.”

The woman paled slightly. “Thirty.”

“Forty-five and not a penny less.”

Finally, the woman reached out and stroked the pillow with a single delicate finger. “One would think,” she said, “that a desperate roach family trying to escape the country illegally would be a bit more flexible.”

Par saw his mom waver then, and he knew she was in the woman’s power. He felt like he was going to throw up. He hated everything and everyone in this city. Ever since Muntaro had been elected and started consolidating power, piling up laws against the Tovari, encouraging employers to fire them and neighbors to attack them, all Par had wanted was to find some way to fight back. He’d heard rumors of a resistance forming—underground newspapers, secret meetings, small acts of sabotage and violence. But instead, here they were, selling away his childhood piece by piece and trying to abandon the only place he’d ever known.

His mom gave the woman the pillow for thirty-five kriblers and Par closed his eyes, trying not to scream. That was when the violinist started playing.

Music bloomed in the air. It was a dark, brooding melody that seemed to contain three or four voices at once. They rose up together, soaring around each other and clashing like eagles, their talons ripping into each other, then drawing apart. Faster and faster the music beat, the eagle wings beat, and Par felt his anger meld with the music, then lift off until it was no longer part of him. The music had absorbed it. The music throbbed with it now.

Then, just as the song reached its climax, the melody slowed again. Par saw the violinist’s fingers lighten on the strings, just grazing them instead of pressing them down. The music changed instantly, as though he were suddenly playing a different instrument. Each note came out with the sound of glass—not the sound of rubbing a glass, or blowing into a glass, but glass itself, the substance transformed into sound. High-pitched, pristine, unbearably fragile, the eeriest and most beautiful sound Par had ever heard.

Then it was over.

Par blinked, coming back to himself. He was sure he had just experienced something supernatural, some real-life version of magic. Yet the Otchka still buzzed with business. People pushed and shoved. No one even seemed to have noticed the violinist.

As Par watched, the violinist took out a dirty handkerchief and wiped his forehead. Then he looked up and caught Par’s eye. Feeling stupid, Par made a clapping gesture without any sound.

The violinist grinned and raised an eyebrow, nodding toward the empty violin case lying open at his feet. Par glanced at his mom—she was talking to a young man, probably a university student, who was examining a handful of old books. Par reached into his pocket, found a handful of coins, and tossed them into the violin case. It wasn’t even half a kribler.

The violinist took an elaborate bow, still grinning. Par quickly turned away. The university student left without buying anything.

“YES!” someone cried.

Across the grassy aisle from them, at the lottery stall, a balding man was jumping in the air, practically dancing with joy, and waving an envelope. “YES YES YES!”

The old woman next to them finally opened her mouth and drawled, “Lucky bastard.”

People were stopping to stare. The group that had been present for the drawing of the winning ticket was doubling, tripling in size. The man seemed to notice the violinist and plowed toward him through the crowd.

“You! Roach!” The man’s face was bright red and glistening. He wrenched his wallet out of a pocket and presented a crisp bill to the violinist. “Play!”

The violinist paused for a moment, the bill outstretched in front of him. Par could see the purple wolf’s head marking it as a fifty-kribler note.

The crowd had gone quiet. Finally the violinist took it. He smiled widely. He rolled up the bill into a tight little cylinder and stuck it in the upper tip of his bow, so that it poked out sideways between the wood and the horsehair.

Then he bowed, his hand sweeping below him dramatically. And he started playing again.

This time, it was a gleeful song, a bouncing rhythmic explosion of notes—and the violinist milked it. He bent and leaned into the music, closed his eyes, tapped his feet, even started cantering around, nosing up to the man and several of the women, that roguish grin playing on his face. And all the while, the fifty-kribler note zipped through the air, faster and faster and faster as the musical notes climbed in dizzying whirls until they ended with three resounding chords and a flourish.

The crowd lost it. Whoops and whistles and cries of “Encore!” almost buried all the applause. “That roach can play!” someone shouted.

Par was crying.

If anyone had told him that a piece of music would make him cry one day, he’d have shoved that person to the ground. But it wasn’t just the music. It was something else. The anger had come back ten times stronger than before, flooding in like an unstoppable river.

He slipped into the crowd. The red-faced man was grinning and shouting, sweat pouring off his forehead. The envelope with his winning lottery ticket was clutched in his right fist, his name, address, and ticket number neatly handwritten in ink.

Par cut around and approached him from behind. A foot between his legs was all it took. The man went down with a cry. In the split-second before the man realized what was happening, Par yanked the envelope free.

“Thief!” the man was screaming, struggling to get to his feet. “Dirty little roach thief!”

Par turned and caught his mother’s eyes. They were wide with pure shock.

And then Par was weaving between people. He had no idea what he was doing or where he was going. The envelope felt like it would singe his fingers any second. All he knew was that he had to escape and draw the furious crowd away from his mother.

When he broke through the edge of the mob, he started running down aisles, darting between wagons and barrels and old furniture, deeper and deeper into the heart of the Otchka, then out again toward the far side.

Finally he found himself at a quieter edge of the market. No one seemed to be chasing him anymore. He spotted a tree stump hidden behind a run-down yellow stall and collapsed there, out of breath. The fiery-colored woods loomed over his shoulder.

He knew he couldn’t use the ticket himself. Tovari were forbidden from entering the lottery, just like they were forbidden from entering most shops and most theaters and the nicest parks and all the libraries. He could try to sell it, but since he wasn’t even allowed to have the ticket in the first place, everyone would know he’d stolen it. Someone would turn him in.

The more he thought about it, the more Par realized the stolen ticket was useless. He wouldn’t have stolen it if the man had earned it. But it was just luck. Why did luck come to people like that? Why didn’t it come to people who were forced to sell all their belongings just to escape from a place where they were hated?

“Hello, thief,” said a voice.

Par looked up, heart pounding.

The violinist was standing over him. He was grinning.

“Quick fingers you got there,” said the man. He set his violin case down, then lay down on the grass, stretching his long legs out and propping himself on his elbows. “I’ll wager you’ve done this before.”

Par felt his face heating up. He’d never stolen anything in his life.

“I’m looking for someone like you,” the violinist went on, lowering his voice. “We need a talented thief for all sorts of missions.”

Par’s heart somehow sped up even more. “Who’s we?”

“Don’t be stupid, kid. What’s your name?”

“Why do you care?”

The violinist sat up suddenly, his face only inches away from Par’s. “Tell me, do you like being spat on?”

“No.”

“Do you like being looked down on by pathetic brainless sheep on the street?’

Par shook his head, startled.

“Do you like being treated like a cockroach?”

Par inhaled sharply. He finally understood.

“You’re the resistance.”

“And you can be one of us,” said the violinist.

A gust of wind blew through the Otchka. A curled-up dry brown leaf scuttled like a crab across a blanket. To join the resistance was all Par had wanted, but suddenly he felt terribly alone.

“I can’t,” he said. “I’m leaving with my mother as soon as we get enough money. We’re trying to sell everything today.”

“Oh,” said the violinist, smiling again. “My apologies. I mistook you for a man.”

He shifted backwards as if to leave.

“What?”

That was when the violinist laughed. It was a bright, glimmering, ruthless sound, like a sharpened icicle in the sun. “Only cowards run, kid. Real men stay and fight.”

That stung much more than Par would let on. “You consider that fighting?” he said. “Playing a song for anyone who gives you fifty kriblers? You let them treat you like a circus animal.”

The violinist’s eyes flashed, but he didn’t seem angry. He seemed—excited.

“You’re wrong,” he said softly. “That was Tovari music. The most expressive and energetic musical tradition in this country, and probably the world. Playing that song for that blubbering lackey—and him enjoying it—that’s like spitting in his ears. Every note, every bow-stroke is a weapon as sharp as a knife.”

Par said nothing, but a great bell was chiming inside of him. He hadn’t even realized Tovari music was different from any other. Was that why he’d been so affected by the music? Because it was part of his own culture? To do battle with music—it was a radical idea, and a thrilling one.

“Please,” the violinist said. “The resistance needs you.”

“I’m sorry,” Par said at last, rising from the tree stump with a great effort. “I can’t abandon my mother.”

“Wrong again,” said the violinist, standing as well. “You can’t abandon your people.”

Par’s breath caught in his throat. Unexpectedly, anger sparked to life again inside him, anger at this man who had cornered him, forcing him into this impossible dilemma. What on Earth was he supposed to do?

He must have hesitated too long, because the violinist shrugged. “You give me no choice,” he said. Then he tilted his head back and bellowed to the sky, “HERE! The thief is here!”

A jolt like an electric shock sliced through Par.

The violinist grinned again. “Your only hope is to run to the woods. My resistance cell is camped there. We’re one of countless cells in a network spread out across the country. Find the juniper tree with two trunks and climb up the deer trail. They’ll protect you.”

And with that, the violinist lifted his case and sauntered off toward the trees.

Par stood for just another moment, too stunned by the betrayal to move. Then he bolted.

Not toward the woods, but back into the Otchka. He was faster than just about anyone he knew; he would have to rely on that. Footsteps and screams were already chasing him, gleeful laughter and hideous curse words, but the Otchka was a labyrinth.

He made turn after turn after turn, nearly knocking over plum towers and flimsy carts of chestnuts, until the buildings of Gholàr came back into view. He barreled toward them without looking back, heading for home.

 

“You almost got us killed, do you understand me?”

They were having dinner on the floor. They had no table or chairs anymore.

After Par stole the ticket, while everyone was chasing him, his mom had packed up as much as she could and found a different spot in the market, slipping away before the crowd realized she was connected to the thief. She’d spent many more hours selling their wares on her own, once she was convinced that Par had escaped, and now she was livid.

Her trembling hand clutched her knife like a dagger. She could barely spread her cheese.

Par knew she was right, but he still couldn’t feel remorse for stealing the lottery ticket. He felt terrible for putting his mother in danger, though, and then for making her pull the cart all the way back on her own.

“And as if stealing that ticket wasn’t enough, you then attract the attention of the resistance?” She hissed the last word. “And let that smiling double-crossing weasel almost talk you into joining their ranks?”

Almost. At first, he’d trusted that man. He’d even admired him. But the truth was, part of him still did. And right beside that feeling of betrayal, roiling in his stomach like a restless snake, was the question, What if the man was right?

“This is what I’ve been telling you,” Par’s mother went on, her voice softening slightly; she finally managed to spread some sour cheese on a slice of stale bread. “There is no resistance. There’s only a band of hooligans with a new justification for violence.”

“I don’t think so,” Par ventured. He cracked his teeth through the bread, feeling a dull pain in his jaws and ears. “The violinist was fighting with music. He was proving something to them. Our music is the best in the world.”

“Par!” She was looking at him fiercely now over the rim of her chipped teacup, which they hadn’t managed to sell. “Par,” she repeated, setting it down, “that was a sentence that could have come straight from Muntaro’s mouth.”

He could feel his face heating up: shame and indignation.

“Yes, we have a culture,” his mother went on. “Just as old and complex and valuable as anyone’s. But be careful of placing too much pride in it. That was the downfall of your father. You be proud of your achievements, Par, your qualities, your choices. Your determination. Your good marks in school. Your capacity for emotion. Your sense of justice. That’s where your pride belongs.”

She stood up and carried her dish to the small washbasin, where she set it down with an uncharacteristic clatter. Then she turned and sat back down cross-legged, facing him. For a long time, it was quiet. At some point, she shook her head and smiled. Then she reached out with her calloused fingers and touched his cheek. He let her stroke it.

“You’re just a boy,” she said gently. “You’ll fight when you’re older, if you choose to, once you’ve finished your education, when you’ve figured out who you are and how to put your skills to use. In the meantime …” She checked that the sheet they were using as a window-curtain was closed, then reached into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out two small, dark green documents. “We leave tomorrow at dawn.”

The passports glistened in the candlelight. Par took his reluctantly, reverently, and touched the fine leather. Inside was his school photograph from the year before. He was obviously in mid-laugh. Anyone would think he was a very happy fourteen-year-old.

Only he knew the truth. The photographer hadn’t noticed the large furry spider descending from the ceiling directly above his bald head.

 

Night passed slowly. Par’s body was exhausted but his mind wouldn’t rest.

He was wrapped in a blanket on the hard wooden floor, the shapes and shadows of his gutted, empty home unrecognizable. He was trying to take stock of all he was leaving behind, ingrain it into his mind forever. The puppet shows in Greywolf Square on St. Hovart’s Day, when the heady smells of grilling lamb and stuffed pepper wafted from the bonfires and food carts. The laughing creak of the wooden stairs as he and his friends ran down from their musty classroom to play streetball during recess. The invigorating, crystal-clear air of fall in the mountains, when the trees seemed reckless with passion, bursting with all their pent-up fire—blushing, yet proud.

Of course, these memories had been tainted by Muntaro. This year, for the first time, Tovari weren’t allowed at the puppet shows. This year, for the first time, Par had no friends. People he had once thought he’d be close to forever picked him last for their streetball team. They stopped asking him to join them for sweet rolls and yogurt after school. They looked away when he met them on the street.

At least Muntaro couldn’t take away the mountains.

He rolled over, his back aching almost as much as his heart. Damn this floor, damn these people who could take away his own bed, damn this country that could reduce him to tears in the middle of the night.

What had Mom said about his sense of justice?

Only cowards run. Real men stay and fight.

Those words, not his mother’s, resurfaced in his mind, clear and sharp as though chiseled from stone. They grew in his head like a reverse echo, gaining volume and power with every repetition.

Real men stay and fight.

Stay and fight.

Fight.

Par threw back the blanket. His rucksack was already packed. He wrote a note to his mother and set it on the floor beside her. Outside, haloes of mist glowed around the gas lamps. The air smelled of horses and rain. As he flew like a ghost over the cobblestones, hardly believing what he was doing, the sound of the violinist’s music came back to him unbidden, like a steady breeze in his head, urging him onward: toward the outskirts, toward the Otchka, toward the forest.

He found the apartment easily. It was only blocks from the Otchka in a rundown part of the city where cats slunk through piles of trash.

He slipped through the door into the musty stairwell. Gaslight angled through a single high window clouded with grime; it wasn’t even enough for Par to see the stairs beneath his feet. He spiraled slowly up to the third floor. There: a rusty door-plaque with the number 33 barely visible. He knelt down on the threadbare mat and slipped the envelope with the winning lottery ticket under the door where it belonged.

It didn’t feel like a defeat. It just felt like a relief.

He crept back outside. Through the dead lanes and alleys of the Otchka, past the place where he and his mother had set up their stall, on and on across the grass until the shadows deepened and the trees took over.

The moon was only a sliver and it took him a long time to find the two-trunked juniper tree where the deer trail began. But then, at last, he was climbing, leaves crunching softly beneath him, the chuckle of a creek keeping him company. On distant slopes, in an ever-rising chorus of longing, wolves.

Par smelled the fire before he saw it. And then, he was there: a ring of people—maybe twenty—around the remains of a campfire, some sleeping, some whispering, guns in their laps.

“I knew it!” said the violinist, jumping to his feet. “The thief.”

“I’m not a thief,” said Par.

“I knew I could trust you,” the violinist went on, taking Par by the arm and seating him on a rock close to the fire. A few men and women were stirring. “Here, have some tea.”

The sky in the east was just starting to lighten. Par pictured his mother sitting up, rubbing her eyes. Putting on her slippers because the floor would be so cold, crossing to the basin to wash her face, and telling Par to wake up. She would call at least twice before checking his pile of blankets, rustling them gently, then firmly, and perhaps only then finding the note on the floor.

I’m joining the resistance. I’m so sorry, Mom. Maybe you’re right about everything, but I have to do this. Please, please, please take the train to Velingen. I’ll find you there when this is over, I promise.

The sky was turning pale grey and pink now; a few people polished their guns.

Par sipped linden tea without tasting it and stared into the embers. He was going to resist Muntaro. So why did it feel, at the same time, as though he’d given in to some even more powerful, even more terrible force?

“You’re a fighter,” said the violinist, putting an arm around Par’s shoulders.

This time, Par recoiled. He didn’t want that person to touch him. His head whirled; if he hurried, he could probably still catch his mother at the train station. There was still time to change his mind.

“A true Tovari,” the violinist continued. “One of us.”

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Jason Fowler, curated by Dana Lyons.

Noah Weisz received his M.F.A. in Fiction from the New Writers Project at UT Austin. He has been shortlisted for the international Bath Children’s Novel Award and a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature. His fiction for readers young and old can be found in Highlights, Lunch Ticket, F(r)iction, Cosmonauts Avenue, and other publications. Currently, he teaches creative writing at St. Edward’s University and elementary-school language arts in Austin, Texas. You can learn more at https://noahweisz.wordpress.com.

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