We’re welcoming back YARN alum Laura Williams McCaffrey, who has a brand new book! “Marked,” a dystopian mixed-media fantasy for kids, was published by Clarion Books last month; Kirkus calls it “an original, textured page-turner.” Wow! Speaking of page turners (or scrollers – we’re online), here’s a new short story she wrote especially for YARN! (And be sure to check out her previous YARN story, “Into the Vast,” which won the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award!)
By Laura Williams McCaffrey
When the girl was recruited by a commander of the Blue Mountain clan to fly a black metal bird, to become the protector and spy for a squad of soldiers, she hadn’t known that for the first time in her eighteen years, she would feel ferocious and beautiful.
For the girl is not beautiful, she made certain of that. In the Blue Mountains, enemy clans — usually Gold River or Endless Plain — stalk anyone who wanders alone too far from villages. The enemy clans are vengeful. They are hungry. At thirteen, she decided she would never be anyone’s meal. She cut slashes like fish gills in each cheek. She had the black witch eye tattooed low on her forehead, though she has never met a witch woman and certainly doesn’t have their protection. She sheared her hair close to her skull, a moss of tiny black curls. She had her ears and each nostril pierced with metal spikes.
And she had not ended up broken and bleeding, her virginity ridiculed by a horde of drunk boys with guns. She also was never asked by any boy in her village to bed down with him before he went off to fight. No boy has ever asked her to share a meal or watch a sunset. Why care about such things? She is ugly, but she is whole. This seems a fair trade.
The girl once had another name, something soft. Now she is Crow, like her bird. The rounded bubble that forms her bird’s body is clear. Instead of wings, it has two top rotors. Instead of talons, four black legs with four small wheels. Its frame and tail are black. On its nose, she has etched a crow’s face. She scores the rest of its black metal frame, engraving feathers during long, quiet sunsets, as she perches alone on the mountainsides.
She tells Captain and his soldier boys that she settles for the night on ledges far above so she can watch over them, and this is true. She watches the glare of their fires, and she scans the crags around them for movement, other clans skulking close. Yet also, she doesn’t wish to sit among them. Though they have never hunted girls near enemy villages, she heard whispers when training that some Blue Mountain soldiers do. She doesn’t want to sit at a fire with them and hear some girl’s pain spoken of with a laugh or a shrug. Also, she doesn’t wish to see them stare at the fish gill slices in her cheeks, at the tattoo eye or the many glinting spikes. To have them whisper behind her back that she will live her whole life alone, untouched. To have them blame her— What? Hysteria? Poor judgment? — for her scars, rather than blame their enemies’ hunger. Or to see them laugh, for people laugh at an ugly girl like they laugh at a dog that’s lost its fur to mange. A creature so outlandish, so pathetic.
Captain and his soldier boys must have heard rumors of her face from the boys at the hangar who service her bird and restock her supplies, but she doesn’t think they laugh at her. Now, to them, she is a roar and a rhythmic beat. She is a black bird wheeling above, spying out havens where they might rest. She spies out their enemies, too, and she shoots red spit down onto those enemies. Red spit burns the skin and eyes. Breathing its fumes is like breathing fire.
To Captain, she is a voice in the headset cupping his ears. When he and the boys are exhausted, when they are lost, she is the voice directing them to shelter. She says to Captain: Climb just a bit farther. You can rest soon, I promise. And he climbs, no matter how exhausted he is. She makes him promises, and his belief in her promises carries him to safety.
“Fly down to us,” Captain has said more than once. “We owe you a drink, Crow.”
Though the offer always makes her smile, she never accepts. She is certain that if he actually saw her, he would wish he had never spoken such an offer. She always says, “I’m going to stay with my bird. Keep watch for a while.”
“Not sleep, you mean.”
“I might sleep.”
“Liar,” he often says, his voice so cheerful after he escapes death. “Crow. Come down for once.”
“You’re not hungry?” She tries to distract him. “I’m starving. I’m gonna go eat.”
“You could eat with us.”
She teases, “Yeah, maybe after you all wash.”
After she leaves the headset in her bird, she sits on the edge of wherever she’s perched. In the silence and the dusk, she likes to think of Captain, a shadowy figure eating dried goat meat in a half-hidden shelter as he surveys the dark crags. He sits beneath the same black sky as she does, with the same wind around him, whistling its longings and its secrets.
As night begins to fall, she lowers her black bird onto a plateau. After climbing down and checking it over, she strokes its metal face. Cold creeps into her coat.
She hears a crackle from the headset, which lies inside on her seat. “Crow?”
She opens the bird’s door, climbs back into her seat, and presses the headset to one ear. “I’m here, Captain. Give me a moment.”
She draws her blankets close, wrapping a cocoon around her. Then she cranks her seat back a bit, so she can look out at the stars. She pillows her head against a corner of the blanket and adjusts the headset so she can barely feel the earpiece. “All right.”
He says he received tomorrow’s orders from the commander. He relays these orders, as always, in the rare mountain dialect spoken by most in her village. The dialect is why they were paired; even if enemy clans find a way to listen to them, those enemies aren’t likely to understand what they say. Yet he isn’t from her village. Also, he speaks many, many dialects. He curses in ones she doesn’t know. He seems to think this is more polite.
The orders trouble her. The squad is to attack an Iron Steppe weapons cache, though they only have rumors of a location. She is to help guide him while, silent as ghosts, he and his boys climb the Razor, one of the sheerest nearby peaks. Once she or the scouts find the cache’s location, the boys will try to outflank the Iron Steppe soldiers guarding the cache and to attack from higher ground. She may be able to help with the attack, depending on the wind. She can’t shoot red spit if there’s a risk that the pods will blow toward her own soldiers, that the pods will smash and splatter on them rather than Iron Steppe.
Captain finishes, but he doesn’t sign off. She listens to him breathe. Above, the stars glint like slivers of sand glass.
Captain hums, something he doesn’t seem to notice he does. His tunes often leap like skipping stones, but this one drifts, a slow, lazy river.
She floats on the surface of the river current. Her eyelids close.
“You grew up near here?” he asks.
“What?” They don’t often speak of life before.
“Or not. I thought because—”
“Yeah, I grew up close by,” she admits, eyes still closed. “Lower on the slope, and more to the east.”
“Near Bald Head?”
“No, Three Streams.”
“I’ve maybe been there once. To this old goat lady’s farm? She’s also got rabbits. The hats she makes are the warmest.”
“Granny Goat, the kids call her,” she says. “You have one of her hats? Really?”
“I did when I was little. It doesn’t fit me anymore.”
“So your village is near there?”
A pause. “I don’t have a village.”
One of the razed towns. She opens her eyes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you’d lost—”
“Not that.” His voice sounds different, a little watchful, a little careful. “I’ve never had a village.”
“I don’t—” She realizes what he is saying; he is a wanderer. The one thing all of the clans can agree on is that the wanderers don’t belong to any clan except their own, and they aren’t to be trusted. “I thought wanderers didn’t fight.”
“You mean we’re yellow,” he says, his tone flat.
“Did I say that? I didn’t.”
“We’ve been killed, too, you know. By all kinds of clans. Lynched. Hung at crossroads to rot.”
“Yeah, I know.” She has never thought much about the wanderers hanging at the crossroads; mostly she just looks away. “I’m sorry.”
He exhales slowly as if the air in his lungs is heavy. “It’s not your fault.”
“So your songs?” she says. “They’re wanderer songs?”
A hesitation. “What do you mean ‘your songs’?” His tone is accusing. “Because all wanderers play music?”
“No,” she argues. “I mean your songs because of the humming.”
“You hum. When you’re—I don’t know. Thinking? But not while you fight. When things are quiet. At the end of the day.”
“I do?” He clears his throat. “In your ear?” He says a word she doesn’t know, though it’s clearly a curse. “Sorry.”
“Look, you don’t have to quit,” she says quickly. “The songs aren’t bad.”
He sniffs. “It’s tiring — the way everybody is sure, right off, that I like music. Because of what I am.”
She smiles. “You hum. That’s all I know.”
“I play an . . . I don’t know the name in this language. It’s wooden, with strings and a very long neck. I mean I used to play it. I don’t carry it now. I miss it,” he says so fervently, she can’t think what else to say. She doesn’t miss anything about living with her mother in the inn. She doesn’t miss being rooted to the ground.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Crow,” she says. “That’s my name.”
“Not that,” he says. “I’m Shay.”
The image of him in her mind, always more shadowy than real, shifts; she’d assumed he’s a lot older than she is, but now she isn’t certain.
“Yours?” he asks again.
“Your mother named you Crow?”
“No, but that’s what she calls me. Everyone does.”
“The other name is gone.” Even to herself she sounds angry, and she is angry, which is odd because she doesn’t really care about her old name. Still, she keeps talking as if she’s spitting out something bitter: “That other name isn’t who I am.”
“All right,” he says, gently. “Crow’s good. I like it. It’s just not how you sound.”
Despite the bitter taste on her tongue, she laughs. “How do I sound?”
“You don’t squawk,” he says. “You have a lovely voice.”
She hugs the blanket more tightly around her.
“You still there?” he asks. “I didn’t mean to insult you,” he jokes, but a little uncertain. “I can take it back if you want.”
“No. No,” she says. “Thanks.”
The rest of me isn’t lovely. This is what she should say. But maybe he’s imagining her as lovely, and she can’t bring herself to kill off that false imagining.
The girl drops her bird as low as she dares, circling the dun-colored peak. Below lies a slope of sand-brown ledges and scrub trees. Also, maybe, somewhere down there lies the weapons cache. Captain and his boys, sand-brown, too, climb a narrow, winding trail: easy targets for an ambush. She hasn’t seen signs of one, but it’s surely here.
The wind is mean. It shoves, and then it drops away. It sneaks up on her from a new direction, and then it lashes at her, trying to smash her into the side of the peak. Usually, she doesn’t notice how her hands and feet — adjusting stick, collective, and pedals — respond to steady her bird, or to lift it, to lower it, to turn it, to hover it. On this flight, her arms and legs ache; they have to shift and shift and shift to keep her bird flying true.
She must spot the Iron Steppe soldiers before Captain and his boys get close to them, or her red spit will be useless. She can’t risk shooting it near them with the wind this nasty.
She scans the slope, tensed to leap or swerve. No ambush can stay completely still — she searches for movement among the rocky outcroppings and the spiky trees. Movement, or the glint of metal.
A gulch. A shelf-like ledge. Dark patches of trees. She circles, fighting the wind.
Below, Captain and his boys climb. They stir dust that the wind catches and shoves against their backs.
They shouldn’t be out here, she thinks, and as if Captain heard her thoughts, he says softer, in the way he speaks when he wants only her, not the boys, to hear, “I don’t like this.”
“It’s gotta be an ambush,” she says. The wind buffets her bird, and she struggles with the stick and collective. Her shoulders burn.
“You all right?”
“Yeah. It’s rough up here.”
“Down here, too,” he rasps. He sounds as though he’s covered his nose and mouth to try and keep out the dust.
She squints against the sun’s glare, which is still strong despite her dark glasses. The wind kicks up a spray of dust that swirls into a column. She studies it as she veers her bird into a wide circle. No sign of other soldiers.
“I told the commander I didn’t like this,” she says.
“So did I. He asked if I was refusing the mission.”
Her bird shudders. She drops it a little lower, and she finds calm.
“You’re close to the ground,” he says.
“The air’s not so rough lower down.”
Below, the boys trudge behind Captain. Everything else is still.
Then a burst of dust rises. “There,” she cries. “I see—”
She breaks off. Long-legged sheep bound from where they must have crouched. The boys have halted to take aim. “It’s sheep,” she says as the creatures leap and scrabble up the mountainside.
Captain says to the boys, “All right. All right. Let’s go.”
The gullies pocking the slope, she realizes, could hide the enemy. If soldiers have lain in the bottom of them, wearing sandy trousers and coats, if they keep their faces hidden, she won’t be able to spot them. There could be dozens scattered across the peak.
She tells Captain, and he orders scouts to fan over the slope. She should feel better that she thought of this danger. Instead she feels as she does when she keeps trying to tighten a spigot on a well, and it won’t tighten. Water drip, drip, drips no matter how hard she twists.
“I know they’re here,” murmurs Captain. “You don’t see anyone behind us? They might’ve waited until we went past. To strike from the back.”
“And fight up the hill?”
She arcs again. The wind shoves.
She struggles to keep her bird steady. Her hands have gone numb.
“Yeah. I’m fine.”
“Sure.” He sounds troubled.
“Do you think there’s really a cache of guns up here?” she asks.
“Before we left, I asked spies I know,” he says slowly. “Pirates did steal a shipment from City of Steel. And they put around word that they’re auctioning the guns.”
“But your spies didn’t say that the guns are hidden up here? They didn’t say Iron Steppe bought the guns?”
“I don’t know how the commander got word of that.”
The wind suddenly tosses the girl, and her numb hands lose their grip. “No, no.”
She fumbles with the stick and collective.
The ground below is jagged ledges. Broken boulders. Dust and bones.
The wind dies suddenly, and she’s able to grasp the handgrips tight. Although she is shaking, she steadies the bird.
A sharp ‘crack,’ ‘crack’ fills her headphones. “Captain?”
Captain calls, “Crow!” And then he’s shouting to his soldier boys. They are scattering across the slope. They are crumpling to the ground.
She now sees that uphill from them crouch dozens of men in fissures, who shoot down the mountain. Also, the enemy clearly planned to face her, for they’ve spread so far apart that her pods of red spit will likely only splatter one soldier at a time. She might be able to hit more than one, but that will depend on the direction of the wind when the pods break — the treacherous wind.
The enemy soldiers aren’t falling like Captain’s boys. The fissures in the ground where they shelter protect them from bullets.
Another of Captain’s boys drops to the dusty rocks.
“Retreat!” she shouts. “Draw them out.”
Captain gives the order but says, “If there’s actually a cache, they won’t leave their holes. Are they Iron Steppe?”
“I can’t tell. I can’t see who they are.”
He calls for Doc, the only boy with any training in surgery.
“You all right?” she asks.
There’s static, suddenly, and then an echoey pop, as though Captain accidentally hit his mouthpiece. He barks instructions to Doc.
She hovers and studies the skirmish. When he’s done talking, she says, “If we find the cache and another way to get to it, they’ll have to come out to protect it.”
She guides her bird to rise, trying to stay low enough to maintain a decent view of the ground but also high enough to be a difficult target. She begins a wide arc, scanning the terrain for men who seem to be guarding something. If there is a cache, they won’t have left it alone.
Captain’s voice in her ear directs the others to gather the wounded and take them to Doc. The crack of shots keeps reverberating in her headset, but so does the reassuring sound of Captain’s voice.
Beyond a large ravine, she spots a dark hole in the hillside. Square, large — too symmetrical to be a cave. A mine opening.
Captain cries out.
“A graze,” he gasps.
A man steps out of the mine, aiming a rifle at her. She can’t hear his shots, but she leaps her bird up. She veers to the right and then the left. Captain’s voice is in her ear, shouting his commands to his boys. He’s still unhurt.
She swings around back toward the mine. Below, behind the man reloading his rifle, stands an immense wooden cart that carries an immense metal gun, big enough to blast her from the sky. A second man has climbed onto the huge gun’s wooden cart, at the back. A third works beside the gun. It swivels, tracking her.
It flashes and thunders. She veers hard, almost too far. She yanks levers — overcorrects. The bird tilts.
“No! No!” Her arms and legs jerk; they’ve forgotten how to fly. The bird’s head sinks. “No!”
Push, pull, twist. She feels a sensation like a click — her arms and legs remember how to move together. Her bird steadies.
Shouting in her ear: “Crow! Crow!”
“I’m all right.”
Captain curses in a mixture of dialects. “I thought you were gone.”
He has already returned to his men. “It’s all right, Pup. Doc, what d’you need?”
She circles. The enemy below her scrambles around the big gun. She realizes that they are reloading it.
The man with the rifle tracks her. She zigzags but flies toward him, directly for the big gun. Low. Lower.
A bullet thuds. She glances down by her feet where there are gaps in the metal that allow her to peer straight down to the ground. She checks her instrument panel. Then she looks ahead. She is almost above the huge gun and the man with the rifle. Near but not near enough. Not yet.
Her thumb clicks off shots. She imagines the pods of red spit hurtling toward the men and the gun. She imagines the pods hitting them.
The huge gun booms so loud it shakes her. Her arms spasm. The bird sways.
But, quickly this time, she finds her balance.
She circles back to look at what she’s done. The man with the rifle, the men with the huge gun — they all have bolted or collapsed. She is too high up to see, but she knows that the ones hit by red spit, the fallen ones, are writhing and twitching. If they have a doc nearby with the antidote, they’ll live. If they don’t, they’ll die.
Captain calls, “Crow!”
“I’m all right. If there’s a cache of guns, it’s ours,” she declares. She tells him to retreat out of sight of the enemy on the hillside and climb around them. She tells him exactly where the mine is. “I’ll distract the ambush.”
And this is what they do. She soars to the ambush. The enemy aims for her but they miss. They all miss.
She shoots red spit, distracting them, preventing most from pursuing Captain. She shoots so many red spit pods that from the air, she can see she has stained the ground red.
Men lie on the ground, hunched or splayed. Though she can’t see their wounds, she knows that she has seared their skin, their hair, their eyes. She has seared their lungs.
If they could, they would burn her as badly.
When the enemy has all fled or fallen, she leaves the ambush. Captain tells her he has taken the weapons cache, and he plans to camp in its mine. He doesn’t sound as thrilled as he usually does after a triumph. She suspects he lost many boys.
Still, he says, “What would I do without you?” and she can hear he’s smiling.
“You’d be lost.”
“I owe you a drink,” he says. “Tonight, you have to come down and sit with us.”
She is shaking her head.
He says, “Or I’ll hike up to you.”
“Then come down.”
“Don’t be silly.” He sounds irritated. “Why not? I know we’re dirty.” His voice is suddenly a little angry. “I know we stink like blood.”
What can she say? There is nothing to say.
She tries anyway. “That’s not it — I stink, too.” She doesn’t fear that he has ever harmed some enemy girl, she realizes, nor that he would shrug or smile over any girl’s pain. Yet — “I sound better than I look.” She says this jokingly, but she doesn’t feel like laughing. “You must’ve gotten word of that.”
He gives a laugh. “You can’t let that bother you. None of us is pretty.”
“I don’t think—”
“Crow, it’s not going to matter,” he tells her, exasperated. “Come down here, and you’ll see. It won’t matter at all to me.”
That evening, below her on the mountainside, Captain and the boys shelter in the mine. Crow can’t see them, but she knows they must be eating, drinking. She stands on the ledge beside her bird, and rests one palm against its metal belly. She presses her fingertips against the belly’s ridges and scratches. Their sharp edges dig into her skin.
The headset lies inside the bird, on the seat. A little earlier, Captain said her name: “Crow?” “Crow?” A long silence. “Crow?”
Finally he stopped.
She stares at the path, a narrow dirt track. It winds down to the mine where Captain shelters.
Her feet have long tap roots that extend through the dust. They grip the rock.
If she survives all the war’s wretched horrors, will she live alone on one of these mountains? There is nowhere else to go if she means to hide forever. You can’t hide from your own face.
It’s the face she chose, and it’s served her well.
She steps away from her bird and crosses to the track. She starts down it, passing trees of thorns. The pathway traverses the steep slope. It descends into gulches, rises onto ledges. Her throat is clogged with dust.
Night’s growing shadows chill her. She smells smoke and roasting meat, a cook fire. She hears laughter. A few boys tease one called Digger over something he spilled on his trousers. She stops.
Captain clearly has heard whispers of her face already. Yet, still, when Captain first sees her, there will be that shocked moment. There is always that shocked moment.
The voices fall silent. They must have caught a whisper of her movement, or a glimpse of her. “Captain?” she calls.
“It’s you,” he calls back, sounding relieved.
Ahead of her, the shadows shift. A form comes around the curve in the path. A man’s form. Taller than she is, but not too tall.
“Stop,” she says.
He stops, and he bends a little, as if peering through the darkness. “You flew down to us.” He sounds pleased, and it’s odd to have his voice come to her through the air, rather than from the leather of the headphones right near her ears. “Down from your perch.”
Her hands have gone numb again, though they don’t hold anything. They’re empty.
She doesn’t step forward. He doesn’t step forward.
“Come on. You should sit with us a while,” he says. “Where would we be without you? Up a creek with no paddle.”
“If there were a creek.”
“Too true.” He laughs. “You don’t have to watch over us every night.” He gestures back in the direction from which he came. “There’s a fire. Also, I’ll pour you a glass. We have some terrible drink.”
“How can anyone refuse terrible drink?”
He half turns. She doesn’t move.
He turns in her direction again and takes a step. She steps back.
He stops and holds up both hands. “It’s all right,” he says softly, as though she’s a skittish creature. “Look. You shouldn’t— They’re monsters. The way they attack villages. Hunt girls. That’s why we’re fighting, isn’t it?” He doesn’t sound entirely certain. “That’s part of why I started fighting. And it’s not your fault. What they did to you.”
“What they did,” she repeats.
“I never heard which clan it was,” he says.
She shakes her head.
“You’re clever, and your voice is— It’s rare. Like a song . . . I mean—” He sounds embarrassed, as though he’s said something he didn’t intend. “I mean, you’re one of us, and—” He drops his hands. “You don’t need to hide yourself.”
She steps forward. His face is shadowy, as hers must be. A shadow face.
His is very square, with angular cheekbones. She can distinguish his eyes, not the color, just the shape: narrow with an upward slant. “You think one of the other clans hurt me.”
A pause. “That’s what the commander said.”
If she can see him, he must see her: the scars across her cheeks, the eye on her forehead, the spikes through her ears and nose. But maybe he doesn’t see — it’s her mouth he stares at, as though there’s something about it that fascinates him.
Their faces are suddenly close. He smells of dust and iron, sweat and a smoky fire. She touches his cheek: rough stubble.
He bends down and kisses her. His lips are soft. His mouth tastes salty.
She stumbles back.
He stands very still, as though her kiss has turned him to stone.
The wind is whispering of all the things it wishes for but can never have. A terrible thought occurs to her. “Did someone dare you?”
“Dare me to what?”
Is he a fabulous liar? Is he taunting her? “My mind isn’t wrecked.”
“Of course it isn’t.”
“Don’t talk to me like it is.”
“What did I say?” he demands.
She snaps, “I know my own face.”
Then he says, “Oh.” He steps toward her again, a hand extended. “Crow.”
She backs away.
The kiss has altered her. She aches, beneath her breastbone. It hurts like thirst, like hunger.
He is looking at her face now, as if for the first time, studying it. “Your face is — startling.”
“It’s worse in the light,” she says.
He is staring at her mouth again. “And your voice—” He gives a laugh, though he doesn’t sound amused. “I’d be dead several times over if not for your voice.”
“Flyers are supposed to—”
“Your voice is always the best thing I heard all day long.”
The ache is terrible. She takes another step back. The wind whispers, forlorn and longing.
“No enemy clan hurt me,” she says.
He is quiet, as if the words have to shift in his mind, arrange and rearrange. “What do you mean?”
“The slices. The spikes. I decided they wouldn’t touch me. Not ever. So I made my own face.”
“All right,” he says, slowly. “It’s all right.”
The wind cries in her ear.
“Is it?” She walks directly toward him, and he doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t step away. She swerves to pass, so she won’t touch him.
She walks by a boulder, around a curve, into the square opening of the mine. Suddenly, she is in a circle of fire and lantern light. Many round, grimy, silent faces turn in her direction. All boys. All about her age. Mouths a little open, eyes wide.
She steps closer to the fire, so they can see her clearly. The wind skims over her cropped short hair. It chills her scalp.
The boys begin to drop their eyes. Not a one can look at her.
Somewhere close, coyotes gibber.
Slowly, she turns to Captain. He has walked into the light. Staring, he is very still, chiseled rock.
Her hand, she realizes, has closed into a fist, and it presses against her breastbone. Beneath, the ache is worse.
He looks off to the side, away from her. “Crow should sit, right boys?”
The silence stretches.
“We should raise a glass,” he says to the ground. “Once again, she saved us.”
A boy behind her murmurs. None of the rest speak. Captain stares steadily at his boots.
The coyotes howl and shriek, laughing at the ache in the girl’s chest.
Her hands drop to her sides, heavy as stones. “I have to get back to my bird.”
She walks past Captain, into the darkness, up the slope.
Inside her bird, wrapped in a blanket, the girl lies tilted back in her seat. The stars glint, scattered shards.
She is oddly unsettled, as if everything within her has been torn from where it usually rests and thrown against the cage of her ribs. It struck and broke.
Sunrise is still many dark hours away, but she turns her bird’s key, not starting it, just lighting up the instruments. She begins to check that they are working properly. There is nowhere to fly off to. Still, the bird has fuel. It could fly far.
The headphones, which lie in the seat next to her, begin to crackle. Crackle, silence, crackle, silence. It sounds as if Captain is clicking the switch on, off, on, off, on.
“Crow?” he says.
She isn’t supposed to turn off the headset, but she hits the switch. Its ‘on’ light dies.
She checks all the instruments twice. Then she climbs behind her seat and counts supplies. Enough food for a week, plus an extra quarter tank of fuel. She climbs back into her seat. She begins to crank her seat upright.
A knock, knock, knock on the door — she shrieks.
“Sorry,” comes a voice on the other side of the door. “It’s Shay.”
She doesn’t look out the window. Inside her: all sharp edges and points. “What do you want?”
“Could you open the door?”
She doesn’t move. The horizon is still dark. No glimpse of dawn.
She opens the door a small crack. “What?”
He leans so his face is close to the crack. His breathing is shallow, unsteady. He doesn’t say a word.
“What?” she asks. “What?”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “They were asses. And in front of them—”
“It’s fine. It’ll be like before,” she tells him, so he’ll go away. “All right? You don’t need to say anything else.”
He leans further, so his forehead rests against the side of the bird. “I can’t sleep.” A long unsteady breath. “If I could just sleep. I’m not always . . . I mess up. I mess up. You know Pup died?”
“Oh.” All those bodies crumpled in the dust. “That’s not your fault.”
“Remember when I said my people get strung up at crossroads? My cousin was strung up, by the Iron Steppe clan. Hung from a tree. That’s why I signed on with Blue Mountain. I thought fighting would help. I’d feel better.”
“I don’t. There’s no music here. I haven’t played in maybe a year?”
“You still sing. Well, hum. Without realizing.”
He gives a shaky laugh.
“That’s music,” she says. “It isn’t gone.”
“Why do you think I talk to you at the end of every day? And in the middle of the night? When I can’t sleep. I can’t ever sleep.”
“You like my voice. I guess.”
She touches her cheeks, the ridged scars. She touches her mouth, but she can’t, of course, feel her voice. It is many things she doesn’t understand. It is the sound of her. She would never carve it up with a knife.
“My face won’t ever be beautiful,” she says.
“Yeah, I know,” he says. “But please. Can I come in?”
She hesitates. And then she opens the door.
Laura Williams McCaffrey lives in a little house in the woods of Vermont. Her third novel, “Marked,” is a dystopian fantasy that Kirkus Reviews calls, “An original, textured page-turner.” Her short stories have appeared in a number of journals, and “Into the Vast,” published by YARN, won SCBWI’s 2014 Magazine Merit Award for Fiction. To learn more about her, her writing, or her teaching, visit: http://www.laurawilliamsmccaffrey.com