- This story was originally published in Apex Magazine in May 2014.
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- For a list of all Escape Pod stories, authors and narrators, visit our sortable Wikipedia page
about the author…
from the author’s website:
Liz often writes speculative fiction and interstitial work that explore spaces between genres. She is especially fond of gritty urban fantasy, thought provoking science fiction and fantastical literary fiction.
Liz carves out a diverse career as a freelance writer, working with organisations to build communities and running workshops. Liz has run creative workshops for a range of organisations, including the National Museum of Australia, Conflux and the Young Music Society. She works with organisations to prepare and acquit grants, and to build physical and online communities. She has worked on and off as an Artists’ Model for ten years. Before she became a freelancer she worked as researcher, union organiser, refuge worker, circus manager and provided consulting and support to the community sector.
Liz’s comics have been published in an array of publications, including Meanjin, The Girl’s Guide to Guy Stuff, Eat Comics, Something Wicked and her collection Songs, Dreams and Nightmares. Her anthology, Dreams of Tomorrow, won a Bronze Ledger Award for Small Press of the Year. In January 2009 her musical Comic Book Opera, written with composer Michael Sollis, was performed for the first time. Two of her short stories have been staged as plays.
She splits her life between Australia and America – some day she hopes to live in other parts of the alphabet. After serving as a Non Skating Official with the Rat City Rollergirls for three seasons she has transformed into skater and announcer. When she’s on the track you can call her Betsy Nails, when you hear her over the mic she’s Ichabod ‘splain.
about the narrator…
Emily Hickson is a newcomer in the voice acting world, an Australian student studying Fine Art and Illustration. Her techniques and past research endeavours include printmaking, sculpture, digging up dead languages and solving old codes. She once illustrated a book about Alfred Tennyson meeting the Kraken, and has always counted on sci-fi to inspire her when artist’s block attacks. Past works and future declarations can be found at thegrangerchronicles.blogspot.com.au
by Liz Argall
Charlotte and Nessa met in Year Eight of Narrabri High School. Charlotte’s family were licensed refugees from the burning lands and the flooded coast, not quite landed, but a step apart from refugees that didn’t have dog tags.
Charlotte sat on the roof, dangled her legs off the edge and gazed at the wounded horizon, as she did every lunchtime. Nessa, recognizing the posture of a fellow animal in pain, climbed up to see what she could do. The mica in the concrete glittered and scoured her palms as she braced herself between an imitation tree and the wall and shimmied her way up.
She had to be careful not to break the tree, a cheap recycled–plastic genericus — who’d waste water on a decorative tree for children? The plastic bark squished beneath Nessa’s sneakers, smelling of paint thinner and the tired elastic of granny underpants.
Nessa tried to act casual once she got to the top, banging her knee hard as she hauled herself over the ledge and ripping a fresh hole in her cargos. She took a deep breath, wiped her sweaty hands, and sat down next to Charlotte.
“‘Sup?” said Nessa.
“Go away.” Charlotte kicked her feet against the wall and pressed her waxy lips together.
“You gonna jump?”
“No. I’m not an attention seeking whore like you,” said Charlotte.
Nessa shrugged her shoulders, as if that could roll away the sting. Rolling with the punches was what she did. “You look sad.”
Charlotte bared her teeth. “I said, I’m not like you. Leave me alone.”
Nessa wanted to say, “Fuck you,” but she didn’t. Nessa wanted to find magic words to fix Charlotte in an impatient flurry. She couldn’t. Nessa scratched her scars for a while and felt like puking, but she didn’t think that would help either. Neither would hitting Charlotte’s head against a wall and cracking Charlotte’s head into happiness, although Nessa could imagine it so violently and brightly it felt like she’d done it. Nessa had banged her own head against walls to get the pain out of her head and chest, but it never worked — or rather it never worked for long enough, leading to a worse, moreish pain.
Nessa didn’t know what to do, so she just sat there, feeling chicken shit, until the bell summoned them into class.
Nessa found herself back up on the roof the next day, drumming her heels against the wall and reading a book speckled with dry rot. She didn’t know how to talk to Charlotte and talking to refugees, even ones with dog tags, was encouraged in a nauseated, be nice to lepers way. She didn’t know what to say, but she didn’t have any friends either, and the roof was nice and quiet.
Nessa drummed her heels and sent her mind somewhere else, while Charlotte thought about what it would be like to hit the rough tarred yard, how her body would crumple and wondered whether she’d die instantly or bleed out.
Nessa came back the next day, and the day after, to read her book and drum her heels. Nessa liked the roof; she wasn’t sure what she felt about Charlotte.
Charlotte hated Nessa’s intrusion. Charlotte hated the sound Nessa’s heels made against the concrete. She hated the way Nessa turned the page, licking thumb and forefinger, grasping the top page with a peculiar, showy precision. She hated the way Nessa smelled, cheap lemon scented body wipes off–gassing in the sun.
Charlotte thought about leaving, but dammit this was hers, and she wasn’t going to let some landed bitch take it from her. But then, after a while, on the days Nessa skipped school and didn’t climb up to claim her sun–warmed patch of concrete, Charlotte missed Nessa.
“Stop it,” snapped Charlotte after Nessa climbed up onto the rooftop and drummed her heels.
Nessa’s sense of peace snapped like elastic. The pain flinging her to her feet, “Fuck you! You don’t own the roof. I can sit where I like.”
“Just stop drumming your heels,” said Charlotte. “God! What’s wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with me?” Nessa clenched her hands so tight her nails bit divots into her palms.
“I just asked you to quit making that sound,” said Charlotte.
“No you didn’t, you just screamed at me.”
“I didn’t mean it that way,” yelled Charlotte.
“You were judging me. Like everyone else, sitting up here so high and mighty.”
“I’m not judging anyone,” lied Charlotte.
“I thought you were different,” said Nessa and she did not say I thought you were safe.
“I thought you were different,” said Charlotte and she did not say and so I relaxed and snapped and you saw just how ugly I am.
“I am different,” yelled Nessa.
“Well so am I!”
Nessa let herself sigh, breathing out through her nose and softening her fighting stance. Charlotte looked down at Nessa’s spot, back up to Nessa and then away to the scrawl of ugly school children below.
Nessa sat down. She started kicking the wall with her heels and then stopped. They sat in silence. Eventually Nessa said, “I guess I over–reacted.”
“I dunno, maybe.” Charlotte shrugged her shoulders. Neither had a clear sense of normal; it made it hard to tell.
They greeted each other in public, acknowledging each other with monosyllabic grunts. Nodding heads, eye contact, perhaps a tiny smile. At some point they became friends. Though they never called it that, the f–word was too potent, impossible and delicate. Sometimes Nessa shared her water ration. When they were slick with refuse from ag class (code for picking over garbage) Charlotte gave Nessa a smear of the anti–bacterial enzyme her parents grew.
On their way to vocational training, a fancy name for free factory labor, a burner slung his arms over their shoulders. The stench of burnt hair and ripe sweat washed over them. He pressed his face close to theirs, eyebrows and lashes singed into uneven chunks, skull a mottled pink, scars on his chin where bumfluff had been burned back. “Are you girlfriends? Can I watch?”
Charlotte shrank away from his draping hands. Refugees that became burners carried their damage strong — keeping themselves hairless using whatever fire came to hand. Pretending to be something until school spat them out and the world mulched over them. She hated and envied the way they remembered and as a dog– tagged refugee she knew they hated her as a sellout.
Nessa grabbed the burner’s throat and pushed him against the locker. “Can I watch you bleed?”
The burner tried to punch Nessa in the guts. Nessa felt something happen near her abdomen, but mostly she felt his neck push against her hand and the satisfying thud of his head slamming against the locker. She felt something warm trickle over her fingers and moved her hand up to find its source. She found a fresh cut in his scalp, jagged from the locker’s edge, and she poked it.
“You fucking bitch!”
He punched her a few more times in the guts. She went for his eyes and nose with an open palm. He went down first.
Nessa walked away before he got up, and before the adrenaline crash took her legs away. The ground felt sloped, full of miniature stumbling blocks.
Charlotte hurried after and whispered in Nessa’s ear, “What were you thinking? They’ll come after us.”
“Maybe solo,” wheezed Nessa. “But he won’t tell the gang, too embarrassing. Beat by a girl? There isn’t enough fire to take away that shame.”
It was hard to breathe and her guts twisted like snakes, but Nessa felt better than she had in months. An over–wound spring uncoiling at last, and if trouble came afterwards, well, at least she’d go down fighting. And it felt good to be able to protect someone, it made her feel like a person.
Nessa saw the burner a few times from a distance, but cat– like he pretended it had never happened. A few weeks later his face disappeared from the school. Part of her was disappointed.
When family got too hard to live with Charlotte and Nessa’d go bush and climb up into the Nandewar ranges — scraps of wilderness too steep or too dry to be cultivated. Let the scrub hold its own and save itself where it can, hold back the weeping salt that crawled up from the earth. The land did not care if they lived or died, but walking the land was a comfort; they became part of a grief bigger than themselves.
Lulled by the bush they often dreamt of running away, but they knew the color of fool’s gold. Family held the ration books, the water rights, the ID cards that gave them human rights, and sleeping rough could get damn cold at night.
Once, they came across a wirringan. They damn near died of fright when he appeared in a place they thought of as theirs. He didn’t eat them or anything. He just looked like an old man with a beard and gave them strong sweet tea. They sipped from chipped enamel cups as they sat cross–legged on the ground. He told them stories and warned them about places they should not go. They listened for a long time.
Sometimes they hiked up Mount Kaputar, climbing their way past huddled refugee camps, beggars, rain churches, and memorial stones. When they reached the top they yelled songs of love at the land and threw leaves of weather blessings into the wind.
One lazy noon, as they were sitting on the roof sharing a baked bean sandwich, Charlotte realized she wasn’t sure when she’d last dreamt of dying. The surprise hit her so hard she laughed.
“What?” said Nessa, her own laugh punctuated by an unladylike spritz of orange baked bean. “Shit, sorry.”
“Nothing,” smiled Charlotte.
Nessa shook her head and smirked. Her baked beans, slowly melting through the sandwich, chose that moment to fall through the bread and land all over her lap. “Gah!”
“God, I’m sorry.”
“S’not your fault,” said Nessa as she danced to her feet and emptied the beans all over the rooftop. “Food and I don’t like each other much anyway.”
Nessa did her best to clean up her shorts using gum leaves that had blown in from a real tree. Charlotte scraped the baked beans off the roof, kicking with the side of her sneakers. Some beans landed on the head of a kid below.
Charlotte and Nessa fled and crouched behind an air conditioning unit on the other side of the roof.
“We are in so much trouble,” giggled Charlotte.
“Only if we confess. Oldies see what they want to.”
Nessa ground her fingernails against each other and shrugged. Nessa and Charlotte let the concrete’s heat lull them into warm stupor.
“What do you want to be?” said Nessa, her voice suddenly ragged.
“Drover,” lied Charlotte. “You?”
Nessa pursed her lips and looked up at the empty blue sky. “Rich. I’d board New Venice and never look back.”
“Like that’d happen.”
Nessa smiled and wriggled her back against the airconditioner’s concrete cladding. “Don’t ruin my dream. Venice won’t float near here for a decade, anyway.”
“You don’t know what you want.”
“Neither do you. Drover? Really? I want to become a big bird and fly across the world.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Nessa poked Charlotte in the arm and grinned. They hugged each other. Charlotte breathed deeply, enjoying Nessa’s lemony scent.
The next spring Nessa got sick and hardly came to school. When she did she didn’t have the strength to climb up to the roof, and for the scant days they had together Charlotte had to climb down from her aerie. They huddled on the ugly concrete near the bike cage, accompanied by the over–ripe scent of banana skins and spilt Cack. Charlotte hated Nessa for being sick. She hated Nessa for abandoning her. She hated Nessa for being her friend and giving her something to lose.
On a sun–bleached Tuesday Charlotte fell from the roof. Slipped, leapt, she wasn’t sure. Sometimes it was hard to tell what she was thinking as she played with the edge.
Charlotte felt the concrete edge slip away from her. A numb serenity gave way to convulsive fear roiling up and down her body. Pain shredded her. Asphalt split her skin and bones.
She did not fall unconscious. People kept her awake, pulled her from the dark. She hated them. She hated their sounds. She hated her body. But she also hated the idea of dying and hate was the savage thread she held onto, through broken teeth and flooding ribs, until the paramedics pierced her arm with something that drove sensation away.
If she’d fallen in Newcastle the only consideration would’ve been how fast would she die, and would her body still have shoes when it reached her family. She was lucky, lucky to be landed, lucky to live in a place with hospitals and schools and without famine.
The ambulance, with Charlotte’s bloodied body slipped inside, rushed past Nessa’s house. Nessa was eating cereal and watching replays of Sydney burning when the claxons whizzed by. She didn’t know her best friend was being revived as the ambulance skidded past their lawn of grey gravel and seaglass.
Nessa didn’t find out until the next day at assembly; she limped her way to school, dizzy with the exertion. The news hit Nessa like a gunshot. Her fingernails clawed deep into the scars on her arms. She bit the inside of her mouth and imagined slashing her throat open with a straight razor.
A pretty girl next to her sobbed and was comforted. “I… I sit next to her in… in History… w–w–why?” Nessa wanted to punch the girl in the face. Unwept tears shivered up and down her body, like ice, like fire. Nessa really wanted to punch that girl.
Nessa walked out. Teachers had become accustomed to the erratic attendance record of a sickly child. She walked to the hospital. She didn’t like the grounds; the space was too open and too disorienting. People nursing saline bags squandered their rations smoking cigarettes close to the entrance, filling each churn of the rotating doors with a thin ooze of smoke. Nessa braved the reception, the tobacco scent washed away by the sharp smell of bleach and alcohol wipes.
“I’m here to see Charlotte,” she said firmly.
“What is her last name, sweetie?” The receptionist wore a tie with cartoon characters on it, and had ugly teeth.
Nessa pursed her lips, awash with shame. She had forgotten, how could she forget Charlotte’s last name? Time slowed and her eyes flicked from the crack on the receptionist’s left incisor to the crack in the linoleum. “Her name is Charlotte. She fell. Fell real bad.” Nessa felt like she was some pathetic little kid. She tried hard not to cry and kicked the floor with her shoe. “Charlotte.”
The receptionist patted Nessa on the shoulder. Nessa didn’t punch the receptionist. “Don’t worry, duck. I’ll see if I can find her.” The receptionist pulled up details on his monitor. He tapped through a few screens and then sucked his lips inwards. “Are you family?” “No.”
“Do you have a grownup with you?”
“No.” Nessa scowled. The last thing she needed was someone treating her like some kid. She turned on her heel and walked away. The receptionist called out something to her, but she didn’t hear it.
Nessa went home. The key under the paving stone was missing, so she climbed in through the window. She wondered if this was the season to die. She wondered if she would be allowed that escape, and the thought scared her. Instead she hid inside books until her bones felt like they were going to push through her skin.
The next day everyone at school was wearing jeans as a fundraiser to help Charlotte’s family with the medical bills. Nessa was wearing baggy black shorts and hadn’t brought any money. She wanted to crawl into a hole and die, but that felt derivative.
She picked a fight with a kid, because she didn’t like how angry he was. He walked with a snarl, strutting around like he’d pissed on every tree and sneering at girls who should know their place. She didn’t like the way he got in her face, but she only got one good hit in. His fists made her head bleed and her vision went muzzy as she hit the dirt.
Worse than losing the fight, teachers caught them and actually gave a shit for a change. Her people weren’t great people, but they were landed. He was refugee scum. She got a bandaid. He was expelled.
She hated them for that. Of all the things they didn’t see, all the things she took the blame for, and the one time they came to the rescue was when it was untrue and unfair. She didn’t even get the chance to apologize.
Two weeks later Charlotte was able to receive visitors, although her status was still tenuous. Charlotte’s head was shaved and garish staples held bits of skin together. Her body was a living bruise and her jaw had been wired shut.
Nessa said “Hi.” Charlotte waved a finger and blinked. Nessa brushed Charlotte’s fingers with her own, scared of the physical contact, scared she would make the tubes come out or something terrible happen. Nothing terrible happened. The wild part of Nessa’s brain had the sudden urge to jump up and down on the bed, and fling herself across Charlotte’s chest.
“Would you like me to read to you?”
The corner of Charlotte’s mouth quirked.
Nessa read, self–conscious and awkward, from a book she’d grabbed from the library, “The Drover’s Wife.” Charlotte’s grey pallor eased and took on a warmer hue as Nessa read. Her faltering breath became a less ragged counterpoint to the hushed melody of piped oxygen.
“Why am I always waiting for you?” muttered Nessa.
But Charlotte had already fallen asleep and was beyond words. Nessa put the book into her bag as if it were some oily thing. She wiped her hands and watched Charlotte rest.
“Why wouldn’t you let me protect you?”
Nessa felt stupid, selfish and ugly. The chill violently crystalized and she didn’t care… she was all those things, so she might as well be those things. “It’s not fair.” Her fingertips brushed Charlotte’s. “I hate you.”
Charlotte sighed in her sleep, and for a moment Nessa did not see a bruised friend healing. Nessa saw Charlotte smiling smugly, so satisfied by all the pain and harm she’d caused, sleeping like a baby while those around her wept.
“Don’t you hear me?” hissed Nessa, her lips almost biting Charlotte’s ear. “I hate you.”
Charlotte’s eyes opened to half slits and she made confused sounds.
Nessa grabbed Charlotte by the shoulder and shook her, shook her like it was screaming. “I hate you.” Charlotte’s body arched convulsively, her eyes pierced Nessa with their pain and confusion.
Nessa ran, ignoring the dismayed nurses, stumbling down the stairs and vomited out into summer’s long bleeding sunset. Nessa ran, fast and fierce with her face to the wind, the hot air drying her tears to salt and sparing her from crying. Her eyelashes clumped into small, hurt spears.
It was dark by the time she got to school, the metallic tang of a dry storm building in the air. Nessa climbed up to the top of the roof, picking around fresh sharp barbwire made it difficult. She sat where Charlotte had always been and looked down. The pavement seemed smugly bland, no stain, no chipping to show it had crushed Charlotte to itself.
Rage, wet and salty, ran down Nessa’s face. “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you,” she spat. “I will never be your friend. I will never…” Nessa choked on the words and the raw hurting truth. “I will never be anyone’s friend. Every thing, every word, every person, every feeling is a lie. And I am better off without you.”
And as Nessa said “better off without you,” she saw as clear as daylight Charlotte slipping into death; how her words had made truth. She huddled next to the air conditioning unit and convulsed with the depth of her sins, and she begged the empty sky for forgiveness. Her teeth chattered as she mumbled “please be ok,” over and over until her lips felt numb and blue.
Eventually, storm past and clothes wet, Nessa clambered down from the roof. The barbwire scratched her arms and legs, biting and catching on old scars. It was almost accidental, emotion had made her clumsy, and she pretended the pain didn’t make her feel better. The taste of blood and tears blurred as she sucked her injured palm and returned to her average house and absent parents.
Nessa spent the next week waiting for news that Charlotte had died. She waited for the police to come and haul her out of school for murder.
A week went by and Charlotte was not dead, but Nessa’s shame lingered and coated her lungs. She bought razorblades twice. Her mind traced their edges, but she managed to throw them away without opening the packet. She had never smoked a cigarette, but the pain of separation was similar. Unlike smokes, she couldn’t get razorblade patches to take the edge off. She wanted people to know she was strong, strong in staying clean, but she stayed quiet. She didn’t want people to call her an attention–seeking whore.
Charlotte’s parents came to the school. They looked shrunken and ordinary. She held her breath as they walked past, but they didn’t notice her. They just stood up at the podium and thanked everyone very much for helping them during this terrible time, after such a terrible accident. Part of Nessa felt hurt, why didn’t they try to talk to her? Why didn’t they yell?
Charlotte’s parents accepted the cheque for $257.13 with heads bowed. Nessa felt instant rage: 257 dollars? That was it? Nessa’s rage was tempered by her own inadequacy. What right did she have to be angry when she had contributed so little? She raged at the gratitude Charlotte’s parents showed, put on display like some freak show, prostrating themselves for tips.
As they left Nessa pushed her way out of the assembly and followed them.
“I’m sorry,” said Nessa.
Charlotte’s parents looked at her with confusion, they made her think of little grey dolls, tumbled in the washing machine too many times. “I’m sorry?” echoed Charlotte’s father.
“Is Charlotte ok? I visited and… and… is she ok?”
“Are you Charlotte’s friend?” said Charlotte’s mother.
Nessa bit her lip. “My name is Nessa.”
“Nessa, yes, I think Charlotte mentioned you…” Charlotte’s father nodded and shook his head.
“Charlotte’s doing much better. Thank you for visiting.” Charlotte’s mother looked to the ground and flickered up again, eyes as filmy as her thin cardigan. “We… Charlotte’s never had a lot of friends. Please, visit her again.”
“We mustn’t impose on the girl,” said Charlotte’s father.
Nessa found Burners out by the bicycle cage. Their leader was watching younger ones take turns putting their hand under the lens of a magnifying glass — silently sweating as the dot of light bubbled their skin.
“Burner, respect,” she said twitching her chin up for a moment.
The Burner leader looked her up and down for a long minute. He wasn’t wearing much, ripped jeans, boots, shirt without buttons. And he was hairless, eyebrows, arms, legs, all dotted with scars from fire and knife. Not many made it all the way. A lean, muscular sixteen with eyes of forty.
“‘spect, landed psycho,” he said.
One side of Nessa’s mouth twitched, it felt good to be recognized. “Does it help?”
“You work with what you’ve got.”
“What’s the in? I could do with some penance.”
“We don’t need tourists.”
A young one pulled her hand out from under the magnifying glass, panting heavy and trying to suck the pain away.
“I’m not,” said Nessa.
“You’re landed. You weren’t there.”
Nessa wanted to protest, but the leader cut her off.
“Enjoy it. You don’t have to burn. So don’t.”
The young one was having trouble controlling her pain and started to cry. The Burner pulled her onto his lap and hugged her. The young one’s cries became open throated sobs. Her tears splashed his chest. He kissed the top of her head as he cradled her.
Nessa stood there for an awkward moment, then walked away. Behind her she heard tears and soft sounds of comfort.
Nessa snuck into the hospital. She didn’t need to, but choosing when she was seen made her feel powerful. Charlotte looked even more like a mess, bruises and swelling shifting into new patterns. The air was pungent with Betadine and wet wounds.
“Why’d you jump?” said Nessa.
“I know what it’s like, to want to die,” said Nessa. “Why’d you jump?”
Charlotte’s gaze flickered to the door.
“It’s just me,” said Nessa. Charlotte kept her eyes on the door, but Nessa was patient, letting the silence stretch and pull between them.
Eventually Charlotte said, “I can’t bear the way people look at me.”
“Before? Or now?”
“Yes.” Silence grew like a wave, Charlotte’s shame a dam against her mouth. The silence sucked and created whirlpool eddies until it was Nessa’s turn to speak. Razor words shifting, perhaps kinder, perhaps crueler, they scraped as they came out.
“I know what it’s like to want to die. The itch. I don’t know what hurts worse. The way things hurt or a numbness that burns.”
“It’s not like that,” said Charlotte. She couldn’t tell if she was lying, her body hurt and it was hard to breathe.
“The way people’s eyes slide around when they see me,” continued Nessa. “See my arms, call me selfish, call me an attention seeking whore.”
“You’ve said it.” Nessa’s voice was calm and pragmatic. “You don’t lie.”
“I didn’t mean it. I was angry, I was scared.” Charlotte’s ribs hurt along every break; blood pressed against the staples in her face. “I’m a bad person.”
It was Nessa’s turn to feel stabbed. “No.” Then the pain eased. “Maybe you’re just braver. Maybe I am just an attention– seeking whore. It’s strange, it’s selfish… Even after you jumped, I wasn’t brave enough.”
“It’s braver to live.”
Nessa twisted her mouth and shook her head. “Then maybe I’m tired of being brave.”
Charlotte squirmed under the sheets. The painkillers were wearing off and everything felt harder, foggier. “We have to be brave. You have to.”
Nessa held Charlotte’s hand as the pain came and went in waves, building like the tide coming in. After fourty–five minutes nurses came and gave Charlotte an injection that took her away from pain and into sleep.
“I’m tired of feeling angry.”
Nessa stood under a cold hose, felt the pounding ice water envelop her. Felt the ice wash her clean and find a quiet core. She moved slowly as she poured the buckets of water back into the tank and added bleach — ready for the next shower. The water was turning sour after too many uses — only the insanely wealthy used water once. Even twisting the cap on the bleach bottle felt holy, as if all emotion had been washed from her.
The night air was cool, and the wind pulled at her damp hair. She walked through the streets in a white shift and bare feet; her pocket full of presents. She let her face relax and her body drift, not even her posture was combat ready. Fire was clear, fire was easy, but she would learn gentleness.
The tree had been cut down, but not yet cleared away. She propped its plastic branches against the wall and climbed to the roof. The tree slid away as her feet sought the gaps between barbs on the wire.
She gazed up at the river of stars and spun around and around, nostalgic for a youth she’d only seen in pictures. Dizzy and luminous she made her way to the rooftop’s edge.
“Look!” she held her arms wide. “I’m here.”
She breathed deep and dug her hands into her pockets. She pulled out leaves of sweet weather blessing and threw them to the wind and the sky.
Leaves fell down, leaves of words, of “Look.” “See.” “Feel.” “Love.”
“I don’t want to be angry.”
“There is more than this.”
The wind pulls at her arms. She feels naked to the sky. She could spin and spin forever. But she does not fall.
Charlotte will be a long time recovering. Scars run from nose to jaw and across the ridge of her eyebrow. One cheekbone will always be higher than the other; the hair on her head regrows unevenly over scarring.
The hospital will release her early. Only so many beds, she should be grateful she has her life, her brains, be grateful she can walk.
Charlotte will hobble around the house with an arm in a sling and two ankle casts. The doc will say complete bed rest, her ankles, hips and legs need to heal, but who else will make dinner?
Charlotte’s parents will always be working, fresh debt to pay down on top of the old. Charlotte will fall on the kitchen floor and scream with pain and want to die, but she won’t. The neighbors won’t hear her shouts and she will lie on the ground for two hours.
Nessa will help where she can, and sometimes she will succeed and sometimes she’ll fail. Nessa will promise not to get in any more fights. When she breaks that promise her tears will be hot and her teeth bloody. It will be a long time before she makes that promise again.
They will climb up Mount Kaputar. Charlotte’s bones will still be healing. It will be a staggering ordeal and more than once they’ll think they won’t make it. They’ll climb their way past huddled refugee camps, fake clevermen, and an Auntie will give Charlotte a chew that helps the pain.
When they reach the top they’ll yell everything they want and fear and hate and love. They will laugh and cry and feel the hot sun on their faces. They will hold onto that moment, memorizing the edges of joy, of love, of home. It will be a moment they hold onto in the dark times ahead and when the razor’s edge calls. They will be brave.
They will throw down sweet weather blessings and they will sing songs to a land that will one day be whole again.