The power went out. The apartment went dark and silent on an exhale, as the television blacked out, the refrigerator creaked and gave up, and the hush of the breeze suddenly touched on windows that had seemed concrete before.
In the glow of their laptops, Sadie and Dana glanced around the shadowed room, then at each other.
Sadie’s mouth was open in an unformed question.
Dana’s eyebrows were folded together.
Sadie looked at her hands, still poised over the keys, now all blue and white strange. “So…” she murmured. “What do we do now?”
Dana hesitated. “Tell ghost stories?”
Ryan and I had a pretty good childhood, all things considered.
We had mutually agreed a long time ago not to mention the hand-me-down fiascos. Not the embarrassments or the petty revenges we had dealt in with the knowledge that anything I talked Mom and Dad into buying for me would one day get passed down to him. There was a pink and blue and yellow tye-dye t-shirt that had gotten burned, though the only thing that was really odd about that was that it had happened on purpose.
We had mostly agreed not to tally up who gave who more scars too. I’d gifted him a chipped tooth. He’d thrown an elbow that put a permanent line through my right eyebrow. Neither of us was afraid to use the obvious – minor – injuries to win an argument from time to time. We never talked about the white line just beneath my ribs that once needed thirteen stitches to keep my insides where they belonged. We definitely never talked about the jagged thing on his calf where bone had torn skin. We’d both covered them with tattoos of things we wanted to remember more.
After a half-drunk midnight where we both broke down the fine points of all the ways our parents had wound us just too tight and broken us for better things, we agreed that there was no need to confess sins twice. Especially when they weren’t our own.
We had survived. To the brilliant ages of twenty-seven and twenty-four, even if there were days we felt ninety, and days we felt five. We had gotten our smiles and forged our precious silences.
Sitting across from him now, though, I knew he was going to break one of them.
There were two trees in Nita’s yard. She named them when she was three, but forgot to say the names out loud often enough to remember them when she was nine. She thought she might have named them after stars, or like stars, or under the stars. She knew she had snuck out once, after a nightmare. She fell asleep curled up under one of them, cheek against the bark, buried in calm and company, because they were just named enough for her to believe they had heartbeats.
She was seven when she finally stretched tall enough to climb into their branches. She was never sure how it was that she grew enough on the same day that both trees fell into her reach, but she clambered through one, and then the other, for hours. The first had thicker branches and she could pull herself higher before it started to shake the same way her arms and legs did, and the common trembling forced her back down. The other spread wider, and one of the lower branches had a perfect twist for tangling her hips and knees and heels and sitting back for a while.
A ship could never run silently. The crew could move at the pace of ghosts, stuff cloth scraps into every gap in the mechanics, send orders around the deck in gestures and whispers, but the timbers themselves couldn’t understand the need for the hush. They groaned. They creaked. They whined against their pegs, impatient. Overhead, the breeze caught the canvas and made it clap from time to time, as if it couldn’t contain its excitement for the game.
Standing on the deck, watching the fog drift past in steaks as she sifted through the sounds of the unseen ships to either side, Kendi let out an easy breath. She could feel a smile waiting, though it seemed ill luck to let it out too soon. It simply didn’t matter.
Any child knew that they didn’t win a game of seeker by disappearing entirely, letting the sunlight shine through you as if you weren’t there. They only had to find something large enough to fit themselves behind.
The water was loud enough around them, the breeze hummed and hissed, and the ship slid through, closer and closer, without any notice.
Mommy says my goldfish ran away today. I don’t know why.
He was my birthday present – a Big Girl Birthday Present Papa said – and he’s yellow like sand, smooth and perfect, with two black stones for eyes. His fins are so thin, like lace or water skin, sometimes he moves and I don’t see them and I think he’s not swimming, he’s flying. He looks grumpy about it too, as if he doesn’t like the way we don’t notice his amazing trick. And he’s all mine.
He was all mine?
I asked Meria what I should do with him when I got him. I wanted him to be happy.
Tomi waited a long second before she pulled her staff back, letting Rhian relax into a steadier stance. They both spun their weapons on one hand, first one way than the other, and Tomi watched the ground while she stepped a quarter circle around Rhian. She scuffed her toes into the dirt, turned and settled her heels as she faced Rhian, then finally looked up again.
Anie glanced at Cidra. She felt like she should take a step back and drag the others back too, to give them space. When she moved her feet though, both she and Cidra were stepping forward. Anie brushed her hand over her hair, held the warmth of her palm against her skull for half a moment, and dropped her hand to her side again.
Tomi nodded to Rhian. Rhian nodded in return, and set both hands on her staff. Another breath and Tomi swung. Their staffs cracked together as if they were trying to break them, loud as lightning touching down. Anie flinched at the sound, blinked, but didn’t miss the way Rhian pushed her staff just over her head, or straightness of Tomi’s arm.
Traidi tilted her head to look sideways up at the tree. She rolled her hands into fists, testing the strength of her fingers, and tried one more time to come up with a good reason for why she was still standing with her heels in dirt. She should have been at the top by now.
It was just another twister, like most of the trees on the island. The trunk was thick, as if it preferred to stretch a lazy inch sideways between each ambitious effort to press an inch closer to the sky, and the bark was the usual salt-washed gray. Each branch leaned around the trunk rather than jut immediately out into the air. Thin limbs rapidly arced and bent while their thicker bases settled for anything that wasn’t a straight line. The tiny leaves, a little larger than the pad of Traidi’s thumb, covered the whole thing in a rustling, whispering, white and green hood. It was a tree that looked and sounded as if it had imagined itself as the inside twist of a hurricane when it was very small, and hadn’t given up the hope as it aged.
But Traidi had climbed a hundred twisters. This one just seemed to have found the exact wild tangle that kept her next handhold an inch out of reach and rolled her toes off steady footing.
The taproom had been busy all night, whisking customers through the door, spinning them between the bar and tables, and pushing them back out into the cool open air. A rushing eddy, the room seemed to steal men and women off the street and hold them for an exciting while. Folk laughed and danced and swirled around the room, holding their drinks and occasionally glancing at the door as if they weren’t entirely sure how to make it back out into the evening tide that would carry them safely home.
Rinna only recognized a few of them. She pulled glasses down off the shelves behind the bar, filled them, and passed them out with a smile that kept just enough edge to remind the drinkers that she could kick them out as well as welcome them. She hadn’t known it when she bought the building, but her corner was just close enough to the docks to keep her crowd changing from night to night.
There was nothing in the dark. Kadelyn laid in bed and curled into a little ball, and tried to believe that. Eviene had said it was so, and Haldard had said it was so. Mother had said it was so, and even Father had that one time he’d found her still awake. But Father had come in the middle of the night to check on her, looking a little scared of the dark as well.
Kadelyn wanted to believe them, because they knew so very many things, but she heard things in the middle of the night.
The breeze sank to the floor as soon as it came through the windows, rolling stubbornly across the length of the room. Its persistence chilled the wooden floor while most of the room held onto the day’s summer warmth. The sun had gone down hours ago, and the stars glittered through the wavering glass. Karleigh leaned her shoulder against the door frame and looked at the white light stretching across the room.
Her door was barely open far enough to let her through, but she had slid her shoulders into the gap, and then waited.
It was so strange to hear nothing in the middle of the night.