There had to be an easier way to get around Hackner Row.
The houses had grown together over the years, new additions bulging out until each home leaned against its neighbor, or pulled back an inch, courteously refusing to actually touch. On a storm day, the wind hummed and whistled in the gaps, but there wasn’t space for anything else.
There were nine houses in the line. None of them were large, but it took time to sprint two hundred feet.
Hanging off the window sill of the second story, the dogs barking and scrabbling below her, Tana really couldn’t fault her decision to haul herself up and over.
“I’m ready for the day to be over,” Mena murmured. She curled over her knees, arms crossed and chin resting somewhere in the mess of wrists and knees and sleeves. She let out a low breath and it lifted her bangs off her cheek.
Dest smiled sideways at her. She had thrown her legs out in front of her and crossed her ankles while she leaned back on her hands. She was sprawled, but that wasn’t really much different from slumped.
“Lucky you,” Dest said. She nodded across the houses to the red, yellow, pink striped horizon. “The sun agrees.”
“There is no time,” Addie snapped.
As urgent statements went, it was one of the more useless. It explained so very little. For good reason, perhaps, it skipped all explanation of why it was necessary to stop, move, run, hide… But it also skipped all explanation or what they were supposed to do: stop, move, run or hide, speak, shut up, throw open the windows, or lock them up tight.
So Tavitha didn’t move.
“Did you hear me?” Addie demanded.
Tavitha nodded, and stayed still. Because if there was time for such fruitless sentences, then she had time to breathe.
“You’re still here,” Jekiah said.
Fingers bunched in her collar, Wynn pulled her coat tight without a mind for the insignias, or the soldier’s stitches in the shoulders. It was just thick wool, bold-faced to the cold wind that tried to cut through her. “I’m still here,” she repeated.
And there was something about the ice bite on the backs of her hands that reminded her what warmth was in her blood. There was something in the black winter sky that carried such undeniable weight, that to stand straight underneath it was proof and testament and promise of what sort of iron she was built from.
She was losing days. Folding into spaces small enough to fit between two hands, she was passing through hours, never quite knowing how she would climb back out. She forgot herself, forgot how ankles and knees and hips were supposed to fit between bones, and how she was supposed to move any of them. If she moved, it was just her eyes, just her hands, just her idling fingers.
One page turn, and then another, and she was losing her days in the space pressed between thin paper, her body forgotten in the corner of the window. And finding some other lifetimes.
“There is nothing out there in the dark,” he said. “Nothing worth being frightened over.” He stomped his heels to push his feet into all the proper corners of his hard leather boots, stood and smoothed down the front of his rough breeches, smiling. He slung his coat around his shoulders and didn’t bother with the top button, the fur collar brushing his ears. Thumbing the latch, he held the door open for a long minute before he stepped out and let it fall shut behind him.
And coming back inside, buttons done up tight, chin down into the fur, he said nothing.
There wasn’t a thought between her ears, or an echo inside the open space of her skull. Air wound in and out of her lungs, but if that draft made any noise, it was hidden under the long pull of the violin’s bow. Her heart was keeping perfect time, a metronome in the dark of her chest, but it was lost somewhere in the hum on the strings. She held her fingers tight against them, and where, once, she felt the throb of her pulse, now she only felt the tones, the weight, the vibration reaching inside to soothe hard bone.
“Don’t panic,” he murmured, gentle, but tense, just behind her. “But… don’t move.”
She froze. Her shoulders locked where they were. Her hands hung in midair. Her lungs hardly dared to pull in air. She steadied herself on her toes, unable to risk lowering her heel to the floor and finish her next step.
One moment, then two.
He stepped in behind her, lifted a hand, dusted a spider off her shoulder.
She took one quick breath in, and then she laughed it out, because she had panicked.
Then, turning, she glared at him, because there had been no need to.
Home was a strange word, Zain realized – a stranger place – and he couldn’t mark it on a map.
He had lived in two houses. Standing in one, he stuffed clothes carelessly into his bag, smiled, said, “I’m going home for a few weeks.” No one misunderstood and, bag strung on his shoulder, he sauntered out.
Standing in the other, the word came just as easily: “I’ll be going home soon.” And he was the only one who blinked at it.
Home, he realized, was always the other place. Too many years of running between them and home was wherever he was not.