The Quickening by Kate Morrow
Over the roar of bullets bouncing off of metal walls, Alan says, “For the record? I’m quitting and I hate you all.”
“False,” Nuria counters with a bright grin. There’s blood on her teeth, staining the brilliant white, but I don’t bring it up. What would be the point now? “You’d never leave us. You’d be pining in minutes Alan, and it would be so embarrassing.”
“Still no signal,” Barrows grits out. He’s clutching a battered radio in his bandaged fist.
Nuria laughs at him, filling up the little tin shack we’re hiding in.
“So optimistic,” she says. “Is this what heroes look like? I’m swooning, Barrows. Hold me.”
“Shut up,” Barrows says, but he’s grinning back at her like he can’t help it. None of us can. We’re minutes from execution and we’re still leaning into Nuria’s space like she’s the center of our orbit. Which isn’t inaccurate-the sound of Nuria’s drums beats steady in my ears, even louder than the gunfire outside.
I feel fingers circling my wrist, brushing against the marks branded there. I look up into Alan’s eyes.
“Here with us?” he asks.
My cheeks are wet, I realize. I scrub at them with my free hand.
“Where else would I be?” I ask.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Nuria flinching from the question.
Outside, the bullets come to a shuddering stop. Someone is shouting, low and guttural. And then comes the banging, something heavy battering against the flimsy metal entrance. Alan releases my wrist and rushes to help Barrows brace the door. Nuria takes his spot-presses herself against the hollow space at my side that’s belonged to her since birth.
“You’re quiet,” she says and I shoot her a look. Like the shack isn’t loud enough?
“I’m listening,” I said.
The door shudders hard enough to send Barrows rocking backwards. There’s blood on his hands, on his face, from the force of it. I’m turning inwards at a rapid rate, shutting everything else out except for what we create together. I dive headfirst into our shared melody, let it fill my ears.
“I’m sorry,” Nuria says.
“You’re not. Shut up, you’re really not.”
The door explodes inward. The thunder of guns is even louder without the walls to separate it. Alan falls and his part of the Song is abruptly silenced. The loss of it is staggering, like someone punching a fist through my lungs. Nuria’s fingers close around my wrist hard enough to hurt.
“I don’t want to know what I sound like alone,” I whisper.
Barrows is shouting. The smell of scorched metal and dirt burns my nose. My throat feels thick and swollen, clogged with tears and words I won’t get the chance to say now. Nuria turns to grin at me, as wild and reckless as ever. The blood on her teeth is even brighter up close.
“You go first,” she agrees.
• • •
I’m not born with drums in my blood. The doctor touches my tiny wrist moments after my birth and finds my pulse too soft and slow.
“Pipes,” he says to my sweating mother, and my parents smile. Flutes in the blood often make even-tempered children.
They take me from my father’s arms and bring me to the nursery. I’m quiet and calm in my little pink cap until they settle me on the blanket next to another baby. A baby as restless as I am serene, born with a beat in her blood that I don’t possess. I imagine that she quieted when we came in contact. Or maybe I got louder, surprised and then delighted by the sudden rush of percussion wrapped around my own softer sounds.
By the time my parents cross the cracked and yellowing tiles to take another look at me, I already belong to somebody else. I’d been solely theirs for less than fifty minutes.
I’m not born with drums in my blood. However, I find them so shortly after that it feels like they were always there.
• • •
I’m three years old and walking with my father to the market. He’s holding my hand tightly in his, because we have to cut through the bad neighborhoods to reach the nearest stores. My little leather shoes are scraping and sticking across the filth piled in the street, and the stench of unwashed bodies and hot garbage is strong.
“Stay close,” my father urges, but then we’re both forced to stop by the man rocking in the road, dirty and smelly and scrambling on his hands and knees like he can’t remember how to use his feet. There are sounds coming out of his mouth, high and unending.
“Papa, what’s wrong with him?” I ask.
My father just shakes his head and leads me to the other side of the street. We go to the market, and my father lifts me up so that I can pick the brightly-colored vegetables that I like best. We don’t talk anymore about the crying man in the street, and we don’t see him on the way home.
I want to ask about the crying man because he made my father look so sad, but Nuria is there, banging through the door and grabbing at my hands. Her smile is blinding and the beat she brings, always present after we found each other, seems even louder.
“I have an idea,” she announces.
“No,” my mother calls from the other room.
On my own, I might have wilted under my mother’s reprimand. But Nuria just smiles even bigger and instead, I find myself grinning back.
• • •
I’m five years old and frowning at my mother as she explains, “I can’t hear your music, Sophie.”
“Nuria can,” I argue. “And I can hear her drums.”
“Nuria is very special,” Mother says. We don’t have a garden, but mother keeps some little potted plants on our rickety back porch. It’s too hot to be outside since the air is dry and full of dust. Despite this, tending to her flowers calms Mother’s nerves. “She’s a part of your Song. Do you remember we talked about Songs?”
“Like Papa and Uncle Peter.”
“Yes,” Mother agrees. “But only Uncle Peter because Papa only found one other piece of his Song. So he can hear Uncle Peter’s flute and he can hear his own brass, but you can’t hear them, right?”
I shake my head. It seems strange to me, because the soft sound of flutes is always there in my own ears. It seems strange that no one else but Nuria can hear it like I can.
Later, Nuria is there because our parents can’t keep us apart. Nuria lives in a house with a yard and an actual garden, and her father looks cross-eyed sometimes when he brings her to our tiny house with rusted pipes and crumbling brick. But they can’t keep us apart. The man on the TV that Mother calls our leader says so.
We’re lying on our backs on the rickety porch, letting the heat press us down like a blanket. We’ve been banned from the indoors because Nuria always has the most terribly amazing ideas, and Mother no longer trusts us near the baking supplies.
“Mama says that you’re my heartbeat,” I explain. “That drums are the heartbeat of the Song and so I have to stay with you always.”
“Because you’re mine,” Nuria agrees and she seems comfortable with the idea.
I hum a little and feel the sweat pool in the hollows of my back. Later, Nuria flops on top of me, citing “heartbeat privileges.” I let her stay, even though it’s too hot and her elbows are sharp against my ribs.
• • •
The Department of Registry is a tall, cheerless building on the outskirts of the slums. It towers over the tiny shacks and meager hovels like the single stately tooth in an otherwise rotted smile.
I’m seven years old, and clinging to Nuria’s hand. The waiting room is packed with families, because seven years is the mandated age of registration. It’s the only law that the entire world could agree on, that everyone must register their name and melody and display it with a universal sign. In the Free Nations, people wear pretty bracelets to identify the type of music singing through their veins. Here, metals are precious and the people are poor.
“Next,” the blank-faced lady behind the desk calls, and my fingers clamp down tight on Nuria’s. My stomach is a knot, greasy with anxiety.
“We’ll go together,” Nuria announces and the lady lets us because we’re the only two clinging to each other instead of our parents.
Later, I study the fresh mark on the inside of my wrist. The skin around it is darkened and angry. One music note, to indicate the softness of flutes. Nuria has four, and she’d bared her teeth at the man wielding the needle the entire time.
My mother rubs something slick and slimy across my newly branded skin. Her own music notes-two, to signify strings in her blood-are faded with age. She never found her Song, not a single one of the three meant for her. I think of Nuria’s drums, wrapped so snugly around the hum of my flutes, and imagine that my mother’s violin must sound like weeping in her ears, playing all alone.
Next to me, my father’s face is pinched and painful-looking as a man in a black uniform speaks to him softly.
I overhear the uniformed man say, “— rare, to discover one so young.”
“Yes,” my father agrees, and his voice is strange.
“Her chances might be higher than most, for finding her Song,” the man says and my father’s hand finds my shoulder. His fingers are claws that clamp tight enough to hurt. “We’ll be keeping watch.”
The uniformed man strides away. My father’s hand softens and strokes my arm, an apology. His skin has gone pale, his dark eyes wide. My heart bumps hard against my chest to see him so afraid.
Once my wrist has been neatly bandaged, I search for Nuria. She’d disappeared with her own father a while back, but she wouldn’t leave without saying good-bye. I find her in a crowd of kids our age. She’s speaking fast and low; her lips are curved in that reckless smile that has them all leaning forward, entranced. Her hands are as busy as her mouth — one by one the other kids are offering their slender brown wrists. Nuria grins at them like a secret and slides her fingers over their freshly inked music notes. I’m entirely unsurprised to see that all the kids she’s gathered are branded with either two (strings) or three (brass). No flutes or drums because we’ve already got those.
“Don’t,” I say, and stop her hands from reaching for the next wrist.
She frowns at me and argues, “But don’t you want to hear the rest?”
I look at the men standing by the doors, dressed in black. They’re standing in groups of four.
“Don’t,” I say again, and tug Nuria away.
• • •
“I’m the trap,” Nuria says.
“Okay,” I agree, because there are black shadows underneath her eyes again. Better to go along when she’s like this. “Is that why we’re spying on your neighbor?”
I’m ten years old and hiding in a tree because Nuria told me to. I wish I could be surprised about it.
“We’re doing recon,” Nuria corrects and her laugh is high-pitched and strained. “Like the military.”
“Nuria, if I fall out of this tree because of your crazy, I am telling.”
“Look,” she insists.
Her neighbor is a twenty-five year old man. He’s a military volunteer, which earns him a nicer house in Nuria’s part of the city. Currently, we’re watching him sit inside his yard and read the government-approved newspaper.
“Wow,” I say flatly. “This is great. So interesting, I’m really glad we — ”
“Look,” Nuria repeats, frantic now.
Another young man comes out of the house. His skin is dark, darker than you see in our nation, and it stops my words. Wrapped around the dark man’s wrist is a bright yellow bandana, and I’ve only ever seen those on the news. Wrapped around wrists that steady guns.
“My neighbor was sent to the front lines eight months ago,” Nuria whispers. “He came back last week with him.”
“Yellow. That’s ... strings? In the Eastern nations.”
“They don’t call it that. They have different words for Songs.”
I quietly study the two men. They’re sitting close together now but turned away, like they don’t know how to share each other’s space. Nothing like Nuria, who doesn’t understand words like ‘boundaries’ and ‘your elbows are crushing my spleen’.
“The Eastern nations hate us,” I point out. “That’s why we’ve been fighting for so long. Why is he here?”
“My neighbor has drums in his blood,” Nuria says. “When they established the Song laws, they decided that drums determined citizenship for the entire Song. The Eastern man had to come back with him-he belongs to our nation now.”
“Heartbeat privileges,” I murmur. It’s been our joke forever, but Nuria isn’t laughing now.
“I’m the trap,” she agrees, wild-eyed.
Later, after I finally convince her to leave the tree, I take her books on Song laws and hide them back at my house. She’ll find them in five minutes the next time she comes over, but at least she’ll sleep tonight.
• • •
“I’m going to gnaw my cast off,” Nuria announces.
“Your arm is broken in three places,” I remind her patiently.
“Gnaw it off and burn it,” Nuria amends. “Itches.”
I heave a sigh and completely fail to be surprised. I’m twelve years old and already resigned to the fact that Nuria is always going to be like this, there is no growing out of it.
“I honestly don’t know what you were expecting.”
Nuria flaps her good arm in great offense and squawks, “I didn’t know it was going to be dangerous!”
“It could have been as harmless as fluffy kittens before you showed up, Nuria. It still would have been dangerous once you got there.”
She snorts at me and squirms against the bright green cast. We’re walking through the streets near the slums and passing slices of crisp apple back and forth, savoring the juice that clings to our fingers and mouths. Fresh fruit is rare and expensive at the market, but Nuria had snatched a wad of money from her mother’s desk. I’m not afraid of these cramped and dirty roads when she’s with me. But even Nuria’s presence can’t banish the reality of the bad neighborhoods, and a rough-looking woman stumbles into our path.
She’s hunched and dirty and drooling, and suddenly I’m flashing back to three years old and walking with my father. I reach for Nuria automatically, and she accepts my fingers around her wrist.
“What’s wrong with her?” I whisper.
“Stripped,” Nuria answers, and I forget sometime that her voice can sound so hard.
“I don’t understand.”
“Law breaker,” Nuria explains. “Ditched the draft, probably, or tried to hide her completed Song. That’s like stealing government property here.”
I’m trembling, tripping over the fact that they can take this from us. Fear is like acid in my throat. I can’t stop staring at the woman with her empty eyes and soundlessly moving mouth.
“Dad calls them Mumblers,” Nuria says. “The silence drives them crazy. So they talk to try and fill it.”
My cheeks are wet, I realize. I suck in a deep, shuddering breath as Nuria leads us around the rambling woman and away from the dirty streets. She’s quiet as we walk and it’s strange because Nuria is never quiet.
“It’s wrong,” she finally says into the silence. The apple slices slowly turn brown in her fist, forgotten. “It’s mine. Ours. No one should be able to take it from us.”
I brush my fingers against the brands on her wrist and wish I could think of something to say.
• • •
It should be romantic, the idea of four people being born to fit together. Movies are made and books are written about finally finding that finished sound. Politicians argue that Songs should be a right, and not a rarity.
“People forget the logistics of it,” Nuria explains. She’s pressed against my side, warm against my ribs. “Big, overcrowded world and we’re supposed to find three specific people?”
“Two, now,” I say. I’m tapping idle fingers against the blanket on my bed. After fourteen years, Nuria’s drums are a familiar rhythm in my ears.”Stop being so dramatic.”
“Rude. I’m not dramatic.”
“You once punched a man for pronouncing your name wrong.”
Nuria elbows me. She’s busy flipping through a magazine that her father brought back from a business trip to the Free Nations. All the girls inside of it are pale and petite and Nuria looks increasingly irritated as she hunts the glossy pages for brown-skinned girls like us.
In the background, the ancient television set drones on. We’re watching some government broadcast because Nuria is a glutton for punishment. Our leader’s press secretary is on screen. She’s smiling so wide and frozen that it looks like the cold crescent moon has taken over her face.
“They’re an asset,” the secretary explains. “Completed Songs are naturally attuned to each other’s patterns and movements.”
One reporter with thick glasses and a gold bracelet around his wrist shouts, “But don’t you think, with the overpopulation and limited mobility of the impoverished causing a rapid decline in the creation of completed Songs, that a military draft hurts more than it helps?”
The secretary’s frozen-moon smile never wavers as she says, “Pardon?”
“There are too many people and the poor can’t travel. Completed Songs are rare, so don’t you think it’s counterproductive to force them into your military?”
Even if he wasn’t pale with a pretty Song bracelet, I would know that the reporter comes from the Free Nations. All of our reporters are silent and hugging the back wall, because they know better.
“The Eastern nations are escalating,” the secretary says and Nuria looks ready to flip a table.
“You want to hear it,” I say, because I’ve always known. So many people in our country shy away from each other and the death sentence that comes with a Song, but Nuria’s been reaching out since birth.
“Wouldn’t it be great if I could?” she asks and goes back to being disgusted at the magazine.
• • •
I’m seventeen, and standing on free soil for the first time in my life. A Sounding is a standard thing for those who can afford it, because it makes sense to take time off and travel in search of your Song. Most people in our country can’t, but Nuria had bullied her father, with his fancy suits and flashy car, into paying for the both of us. Now we’re wandering through the Free Nations, because Nuria has a ‘good feeling’ and I’ve given up trying to teach her things like caution and practicality.
The Free Nations are fast and loud, and I feel very small and dark in the swirl of it. I boggle at the people who wear new clothes every day and never seem to run out of food. They laugh so loud and all the time.
Nuria loves it. She laughs just as loud and eats just as much, hungry for so much more than their food. She wears their clothes and paints her lips a different color every day. She lets people touch her brown skin with their pale fingers, smiling wide and mean when they offer words like ‘exotic’ and ‘oppressed’.
“Put your teeth away,” I suggest, tugging Nuria away from the most recently traumatized citizen. “You’re frightening the locals.”
She makes a satisfied sound and says, “Like that one time — ”
“We don’t talk about that one time. We made that pact, Nuria.”
She laughs and opens her mouth to sass back, but then the strangest expression comes over her face. Her eyelids flutter half-closed, her head cocks to one side, and her hand clamps down on my wrist hard enough to hurt.
“Nuria,” I start to say, but then I hear it too. The hum of strings, faint at first and then swelling until my chest feels like it might burst with it.
The grin on Nuria’s face is manic as she takes off, dragging me in her wake. She’s not even attempting subtle anymore, just grabbing at every copper strings bracelet she sees. She finally stumbles into a boy with yellow hair and eyes gone wide and bruised with shock.
“You,” Nuria says, her smile stretching even wider. She’s still holding my wrist but my other hand is hovering by my ear. The sound is beautiful. There are tears on our faces, all three of us, but I seem to be the only one aware of it.
“Alan,” the boy gasps.
Around us, people are staring. Some are taking pictures. But I can barely see them and I can’t hear them at all.
“What the hell,” Alan adds breathlessly, and Nuria’s laughter is louder even than the sound of us.
• • •
“So, I have this feeling Sophie. That maybe you want to free my intestines from my body and destroy them.”
I very nearly walk face-first into the doorframe. Nuria’s laughter explodes from the kitchen.
“What?” I sputter, turning towards a smiling Alan.
Alan is always smiling. I can’t breathe around how easy he and Nuria fit together. He earns her smiles so easily with his sass. She gives him her special lotion for his skin because the air here is dryer than he’s used to.
“You hate me,” Alan says serenely. “I get it. I’m not even mad about it, but I am a little worried that you might eat me in my sleep?”
I’m almost eighteen, and everything is green. Things were never green before Alan left his family and followed us back to our country. We’re living together in an apartment that Nuria’s parents pay for. There’s nowhere I can go to escape the noise of them. Alan’s strings are still beautiful in my ears, but the sound also causes something sour to curdle in my stomach.
“I don’t hate you,” I try and it sounds weak even to me.
Nuria snorts from the other room and Alan says reassuringly, “It’s a really polite hatred.”
“I’m sorry,” I say and bury my face in my hands. “I’m trying. It’s just — ”
“Awkward,” Alan agrees. “Say, did Nuria tell you about our adventure the other day?”
There’s the sudden crash of falling plates, and then Nuria materializes in the doorway like she’s been summoned.
“No,” I say, eyes narrowing. “Do tell.”
“Absolutely not,” Nuria announces. “Ganging up on me is not allowed.”
Pleasantly, Alan says, “Shut up, Nuria. I’m going to let Sophie scold you, and then we’re going to bond over it.”
“It’s really flattering that you think my scolding has any impact on Nuria’s decisions,” I say.
Alan laughs and says, “Well. Maybe the both of us? Double scoldings.”
From the doorway, Nuria makes a noise like a dying cat. My smile blooms to answer Alan’s, easy and natural for the first time. Later, he introduces me to his old movie collection and I show him where to hide Nuria’s books when her anger at our leader gets too loud. The music in my ears seems stronger, and I wonder why it sounds like a ticking clock.
• • •
Nuria brings Alan home from the movie theater bleeding.
“I fell out of a tree,” Alan explains proudly.
“You did not take him to spy on your neighbor,” I say to Nuria, voice flat.
She hums and hands Alan a dishtowel. I snatch it back before he can press it to his bloody arm and hand him a napkin instead.
“Rite of passage,” Nuria says. “I mean, you and I both did it.”
“We were ten.”
“There were military trucks,” Alan chimes in. “Soldiers all over the house. Nuria’s nosy.”
“True,” I agree and Nuria squawks. “So, why were they there?”
As I grab a bandage from above the sink, Nuria says, “The Eastern man is gone. They think he ran.”
I go cold all over. Running from your nation — running, not just traveling or earning the citizenship of your drums — isn’t allowed. In other countries, like the Free Nations and the Sea Countries, the rule isn’t really enforced. But in a war-locked nation like ours, desertion is a serious offense.
“I’m guessing that’s a bad thing,” Alan says warily. He’s been with us for years and our ways still shock him sometimes.
Nuria puts a hand on his shoulder and explains, “The war with the Eastern nations is escalating. They’re calling all military personnel. He’d have to go back. On our side.”
I shudder and Alan is strangely silent as I bandage his arm. We don’t bring it up again and eventually it fades from my mind. But two months later, the neighbor’s house is swarmed once again with soldiers and Nuria can’t resist.
“They brought him back. I tried to climb the tree,” she tells us. Her face is bloodless, her eyes wide. “But I couldn’t. The Eastern man was in it and the soldiers hadn’t cut him down yet.”
• • •
“Listen to me, Nuria. You need to stop.”
I’m twenty years old and shouting at Nuria across the kitchen table. My skin feels hot and tight and my heart is pounding at the strangeness of it, but I can’t seem to hold it back anymore.
“Stop reaching out in the street,” I snap. “Stop sneaking out at night to look for brass tattoos.”
Nuria is silent. Her eyes are dark and stubborn, and I want to scream. Alan is quiet by the sink, his mouth a thin and trembling line.
“They’re already watching us. I can’t turn around in the market without bumping into a soldier. I know what you want, Nuria. But you’re the trap, remember? This is a trap.”
Nuria rocks back like I’ve slapped her and insists, “It shouldn’t be wrong.”
“I know.” My hands are shaking. I press them together to try and stop it. “But it is.”
I feel Alan coming up behind me. He’s shaking too.
“Can’t you let us be enough?” I ask.
Nuria looks at us for a long while, before eventually crossing the room. She wraps us up in a tight, tangled hug. We hold on and I let our sound play soothingly in my ears.
That night, Alan crawls into my bed and curls himself around me. He does this sometimes, when we’re both beaten down by Nuria’s brightness and need an understanding space to breathe in.
“She didn’t answer my question,” I inform the darkened air.
Alan’s forehead comes to rest between my shoulder blades.
“No,” he agrees.
• • •
“This is the saddest parade I’ve ever been to.”
Nuria snorts and gives Alan a shove.
“It’s a military march,” she says. “Not a parade, you moron.”
Our whispers are loud despite the congested streets. The crowd is silent as they watch the procession. Some of the soldiers are marching alone, and they seem happy to be there. But none of the soldiers in groups of four are smiling. In fact, many of the grouped soldiers are crying and clinging to each other. But they’re marching with the military’s beat, and that’s what they want us to see.
I’m twenty-two and, despite the situation, so happy I could burst with it. We aren’t perfect — Nuria’s a force of nature and even Alan and I aren’t enough to contain her completely. But we’ve only had to replace the dishes once, when an argument about a sporting event escalated, and that feels like a victory.
“Knock it off,” I tell them. “Remember that one time when I had to bail you both out of jail? That was unpleasant, and I’m not doing it again.”
“Unpleasant for you,” Alan corrects. “Nuria made friends with the gang members in the cell next to ours. We had a pretty great poker game going before you — ”
Alan stops talking abruptly and goes rigid. His already pale face drains of color and beside him, Nuria sucks in a sharp gasp.
“What?” I demand. “What is it?”
But then I hear it too. Blooming slowly inside my ears, inside my skin, like a rose to the sun. The sound of brass rising to complete our Song.
It’s beautiful. Impossibly beautiful. And desperately unwanted.
I’m numb under the sudden crush of sound. Dimly, I’m aware of the fact that the crowd is reacting. Someone is shoving through the masses. A young man dressed in military blacks skids to a stop in front of us, eyes wild. He stares at us, clinging to each other.
“Oh,” he breathes and then sags to his knees. “I’m sorry.”
Of course it’s worse for him, I realize vacantly. We found each other gradually-he heard the three of us all at once. Nuria moves first. She drops down beside him and grabs his wrists in her palms. The young man whispers inaudible things and she nods, tears dripping down her cheeks. Her face is the strangest mix of triumph and tragic loss.
Eventually, Alan and I join Nuria and our fourth on the ground. We end up swaying together, lost in the rush of this perfect sound and mourning the finding of it. Around us, the citizens run like we’re poisoning the air, and the other soldiers stare like hawks.
• • •
“Is this a tea situation?” Alan wonders out loud. “Like, I’ve been in situations before with the tea and the calm and this doesn’t seem like a tea situation?”
The cups and saucers are rattling audibly in my hands as I bring them to our tiny kitchen table. Tea sloshes and slides over the tops, staining the ceramic brown. My hands won’t stop shaking, but I don’t know how else to occupy them. Alan helps by twisting my fingers with his once I take my seat. Nuria would, but she’s busy staring down the newest tenant at our table.
Barrows. Adan Barrows, our age and a military volunteer.
“I didn’t know,” he croaks. His brown cheeks are still damp, his dark eyes wide with disbelief. “I never ... twenty-two years and not a sound. And the solitary volunteers aren’t usually sent into combat. So I joined up.”
“They saw,” Nuria says.
Barrows nods and agrees, “They saw. All of them.”
“Maybe we can — ?” Alan starts, but Barrows shakes his head.
“No second chances,” he explains. “I’ve seen it. They catch you trying to run, you’re Stripped.”
Nuria’s hands tighten around her teacup, her knuckles straining pale.
“What do we do?” I whisper. My throat feels thick and stuffed with cotton. I stare around our little apartment, full of the blankets I’d learned how to weave, Nuria’s shoes that I can’t get her to put away no matter how many times I throw them at her head, Alan’s old movie collection. I think of my parents, still living in that crumbling little house. They bake bread for us sometimes and laugh at Nuria’s charm and fuss over Alan like he’s a baby bird.
“Want to hear some stories, Barrows?” Nuria asks. “Seems like we’ve got a lot to catch you up on.”
Barrows smile is lopsided and trembling as he sighs, “Yeah. That sounds great, thanks.”
Nuria talks. She spins memories of our time together into the air. Every story feels like a ghost to me already, and halfway through Nuria’s retelling of the time with the accidental bar brawl, I’m crying again. My tears splash into the milky brown surface of my tea. Under the table, Nuria steals my free hand and squeezes hard.
There’s a knock at the door. My heart kicks hard in my chest, and Alan sets his cup down with a sharp crack. No one knocks at our door except my parents, and their fists don’t sound like military drums. For a moment, we stay seated at the table staring at each other and listening to what we’ve made.
Then, Nuria gets to her feet with a beautiful smile.
“I’ll go first,” she offers, and heads for the door.
• • •
“I think there are spiders in my shoes.”
I’m twenty-two years old and watching Alan hop from foot to foot with a deeply appalled expression on his face. Against my shoulder blades, the tin walls of the little shack we found are blistering my skin.
“There aren’t any spiders, Alan,” Nuria says.
Barrows looks up from the radio he’s banging around and adds, “Snakes, maybe, in this region of the desert.”
Alan’s already pale face loses every remaining ounce of color. Nuria puts a hand on Barrow’s face and shoves.
Two months since the knock on the door and Nuria leading us out of the city by night. Two months of running through the scorching heat and hiding in whatever hovels we can find. Some nights we can scavenge food from the sand, or nearby towns. Many nights Nuria smiles with too many teeth and talks over the sounds of our stomachs rumbling.
Alan’s humor holds him up. Barrows is a soldier used to harsh conditions. And Nuria is indomitable as always.
I sit against the metal walls and think of little apartments full of woven blankets and messy shoes. I think of my parents, stopping by with freshly baked bread only to realize that there is no one there to eat it.
“Sophie,” Barrows says. He holds up his mangled radio. “Almost got it, I think.”
My smile is slow and worn as rusted gate hinges but I offer it anyway.
Nuria drags herself over to my wall and says, “We’ll find a way to contact your parents. Even if the radio doesn’t work.”
She offers her wrist and I curl my palm around it, tapping out her beat with my fingertips.
“It’s going to be okay,” Nuria continues. “You know that, right?”
In the background, Barrows offers another tidbit about the local snakes and Alan wails about his shoes. My smile feels less forced this time, more natural.
“I’ll believe it if you do,” I say and let Nuria brush her lips against my forehead.
I don’t want to know what I sound like alone.
Fluttering in the Remains
The Imperfect Patsy
A Suitable Poison
[ Back to August ]
Kate Morrow - Formerly the Alpha of a secret werewolf army created out of her classroom, Kate Morrow is currently a resident of the Los Angeles area. When not beating her face against a keyboard, Kate can be found discussing all things nerd. Follow her on Twitter (@MKate04) for writerly updates and progress reports on the world domination of the werewolf-students.