Thank you for using our one-weekend only interactive read-along! We hope you were able to join us at our annual Meet the Staff reading event at the Uptown Arts Bar. Whether you are reading along with us this Friday night, or revisiting to find some things you missed, we are happy to see you here!
Please enjoy what our staff has selected to read, and don’t forget to visit their websites or find their previously published work!
The Shifting Night
by Janet Sunderland
Published by Mozark Press in A Shaker of Margaritas, a Fiction Anthology
Jenny glanced along the bar, glowing golden in the depths of years and polishing, as she scooped ice into the two rocks glasses cupped in her palm. She kept it clean, using one of her many bar rags to swipe off dropped crumbs and cigarette ash. And every night, in the silence of the empty room, her favorite time, really, she gave the bar one last polish along the empty surface before walking out the door. The bar was her shield, a boundary against the world, against men too drunk to understand she did not find them as fascinating as they found themselves. Behind the bar, she was safe. Topping off the drinks, she gave one to the waiting server and carried the other to the end of the bar where she wiped the surface and set the glass on a clean cocktail napkin.
“Smile! Things ain’t that bad,” Dino said.
“Dino, I’m an actress,” Jenny said. “I get paid $400 a day to smile. You want to match that, I’ll smile.”
She picked up his money and went to the cash register. Dino, full of bad jokes and unwanted conversation, was local, born and bred in Hell’s Kitchen. New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town. He sounded like West Side Story without the music, not that anyone would mistake him for a dancer, and he drank Jack and Coke.
She wondered, sometimes, what it would be like to live in one place, know that place so well you were never lost, never had to decide which way to go.
Jenny carried his change back and watched as he slid the two quarters off the bar and into his pocket. He never tipped. None of the neighborhood guys tipped. They’d grown up here. The bar was their private rumpus room.
“Come on, baby. Smile. Wanna hear a joke?” Dino smiled crookedly, a smile he’d adopted from some long gone character actor. He had a lot of jokes. “You hear the one about the Buddhist and the hot dog vendor? Make me one with everything. Get it? One with everything!” He slapped the bar open handed, supplying his own laughter.
Jenny tipped her head and lifted one eyebrow.
“You know who you look like? That Lauren Bacall. Remember? She always looked at Bogart under her eyebrows.”
“Well, there’s a trick, Jenny said. “Yeah…thanks.”
She’d heard it so many times. “You know who you look like?” It followed her from bar to bar, state to state. “No, who?” she always said, feigning surprise. When she’d first started bartending, she was flattered. It was Faye Dunaway or Julie Christi, or Lauren Bacall. Back then, bartending had been a stopgap to stardom; now it was just a stop.
Another man pushed his empty glass forward. JB and water, she remembered. She filled it, swiped the bar, and set down the drink in one fluid motion. She reached for his money.
“You know who you look like?” he said. As far as she could remember, he was a stranger and hadn’t yet earned the right to be familiar.
“No, who?” Jenny said, anger crinkled the corners of her eyes. She folded her arms on the bar and leveled her gaze at him. “You tell me.”
“You look like a female Clint Eastwood,” the man said.
Jenny’s abrupt laugh was like a gun shot.
“You win,” she said. “I’ll even buy your drink.” She put his money back down and made a final sweep with the bar rag.
The man’s startled eyebrows and abrupt head bob in thanks made her laugh again.
“You’re welcome,” Jenny said and moved down the bar, grinning. That was a new one. She liked it. She’d have to remember it.
As the kitchen closed, the bar began to empty. Jenny turned the jukebox down from the control near the cash register. Her one server went home, leaving Jenny and the cook to close up. The J&B man had slipped a folded five dollar bill under his glass as he left. Dino had fallen asleep, his head resting beside his Jack and Coke. Jenny sighed and walked to the end of the bar.
“Dino, go home,” Jenny said, leaning over.
“Dino!” she said again, shaking his arm. His body slumped sideways against the wall. His open eyes stared at her.
Her heart clutched. Her mind raced erratically… Bacall and Bogart… Dirty Harry… 911… Dino who? What was the rest of his name? The last four patrons nearly fell over each other rushing for the door. After calling 911, she leaned against the ice bin, arms slack, and listened until the siren slowly, too slowly, arrived at the door.
The ambulance crew rattled in, checked Dino’s pulse, put him on a gurney, covered his face with a blanket. Just like in the movies. Only nobody had a camera. Jenny absently wiped the bar where Dino’s head had rested while she watched the crew fasten him down. She stopped, looked at her hand, jerked it back. A cop asked her a couple of questions. She answered vacantly as she moved napkins and condiments off the bar… no, no one came near him; no, he hadn’t complained about anything. She didn’t tell him about the hot dog vendor joke. The cop followed the medics as they wheeled out. She listened to the sirens whining into the distance. A click and whir from the kitchen told her the cook had turned on the dishwasher. When he’d seen the cop, he’d shut the server port. Not looking at Jenny and making a wide curve around the bar, he pulled on his jacket as he walked out.
The door hung open so Jenny went to close it. Snow had started to fall; it drifted silently onto an empty street. She watched the weightless flakes, couldn’t close the door, couldn’t turn around and see the naked bar. If a camera were behind me, she thought, say over in the corner for a long shot, it would film a woman’s back, one hand resting on the door’s frame, as she says goodbye.
Jenny shrugged one shoulder. Maybe hello. She dropped her arm. She’d laughed tonight, really laughed. Without turning, she lifted her jacket off the wooden coat tree flanking the door and pulled it on. How far would laughter take her? Shoving her hands into her jacket pockets, she walked out into the white and shifting night.
by Annie Raab
In the summertime, Frisbee dug holes that housed quiet seedlings of crabby grass and sprouts from a long network of weeds, until I sprained my ankle on the way to the garden and Arlo set to filling all the holes back in. Frisbee—with her nose close to the ground—treated the whole matter as a game. When Arlo filled one hole, Frisbee dug another. From my lawn chair to the garden, Frisbee re-dug her holes and looked back at me when I snapped her name, but I could not get up (or would not) to stop her. Arlo came from the house with his shirt changed to the tattered grey one from our early dates, and a shovel in his grip. I half expected Frisbee to understand me when I pointed to my ankle and said, “Will you come see if it’s broken?” Her ears went stiff and eyebrows arched, but my waving toward the bum foot did nothing to convince her.
In between holes, Arlo told me about dogs that could smell cancer. The dog was a two-birds-one-stone kind of deal for the patients, providing both comfort in the hospital room and an accurate diagnosis. A patient is calm with a dog in the room. She can proceed in the discussion evenly, all the while her hand on the head of the dog, whose eyes open and close when she strokes the bridge of his nose. Frisbee’s tail went down and shoulders went slightly forward while she chomped at something from the grass. When the sunlight hit her grey spots and paws, it turned her body blue, like crabs I had seen on a beach once. I settled into my chair while Frisbee dug more holes and Arlo filled them in.
On our honeymoon in Costa Rica I asked Arlo if he would like to have a child.
“We’ve both done this before. If we didn’t do it then, we shouldn’t do it now.” He spoke of our previous marriages—both childless—and he was probably right. Montezuma wild dogs (some blend of native dog and Rhodesian hound) roamed around the hills and beaches. I asked if he’d like to adopt a child, but the answer was in his eyes before he said, “I only want you. For the rest of our lives,” and wrapped his arms around me. Time had begun to weigh on us like the fat avocados weighed the branches. A child, we said, would only consume the little energy we still possessed, and what would be left for each other? We laced up our damp boots around a fresh pair of socks to go into the rainforest. The booming of the howlers shook the unseen tops of trees, sending down drops of warm rain to splatter on our coats. The wild dogs didn’t go into the forest. Colonies of bullet ants writhed on the edge of the trees, hungry for the supple paws of dogs. In my attempt to lure the wild dogs to me, I chose the phrase the women used in town, “Ay, qué líndo! Ay, qué líndo!” because they trot to them, tongues hanging down one side, and accept the head of a fish from an open hand.
We stayed in the canopy house. An auburn staircase led us up in the trees to a small house with thin netting that replaced some of the walls. We could look out into the forest and blow away the big mosquitoes that stuck to the outside of the nets. Where the fabric met the walls we spotted several skittish lizards. There was a thick, cream colored duvet for tourists but we opted for the scratchy wool blanket tossed over the couch. When it was too humid to sleep, Arlo rolled onto his back and I counted the beads of sweat in his armpits. I compared the size of my ribcage to his and we remembered the distant days when our bodies never sagged, not with any sense of loss or mistreatment by time, but as one would remember their first vehicle, or even their second. Tree frogs chirruped through theirs and our consummation, some of it old and some of it pleasantly new. Towards the end of the night we fell asleep under the faint patter of rain that sometimes sprayed through the mesh wall onto the floor.
In that dream, you were the bottom jaw of a deer and I was one of the leg bones. They floated near my chest, one crossed over the other. From the edge of a wet and humid wood, a clump of hay-colored hair was tangled in the barbed wire that wound between the posts. The cross of the jaw and the partial leg of the deer pressed against my heart, and amplified into the woods the song of you inside me.
Throughout treatment, the patient has the option of caring for an animal. Fostered animals can often benefit from being cared for as a secondary. Treatments are more effective when an animal is at the patients side. A cat who sleeps with his head on the feet of a man is better than a cat who sits atop the dresser. A dog will relax a patients veins, so her blood can carry the opiates directly to the source, just by laying her head on the edge of the bed. A patient takes this as a sign of love. They remember this is how all love works. What is not gained can still grow. Frisbee leapt into the air to catch the biscuit Arlo launched with his shovel. I clapped and she trotted around the yard, tossing her head all proud and smug. Arlo put on a show while my ankle healed and Frisbee resumed making holes in the yard, because the urge to create cannot be restrained, even if that part of you has been filled in already.
The Story There
I moaned again about writing. We crossed into the park and he was saying it will be okay and I was saying I don’t know. A woman and her baby sat at the fountain in the park. He said, why don’t you start over? I said, I already have a story, where would I find a new one? The woman glanced around and removed the baby’s shirt. She dipped her hand into the silvery pool as water shot from the mouth of the ocean god above. Her baby waved his naked arms and she lifted her hand from the pool. What rose from the water was the oldest vessel on earth—a cup pressed together by the hands of women thousands of years before. Her terracotta skin poured the cool liquid onto her baby, as if upon turned soil. Poseidon, the sentry carved into white stone, held his trident above. His judgment came forth in waves. I was caught—unequivocally caught—in a fear I could not articulate. I forgot myself. He looked at me and said, not a trace of human shame in his eyes, “There’s your story right there.”
In the Back of a Van
By Jessica Conoley
In the recesses of my mind, I’ve parked a faded drab green passenger van. The van must be a late 70’s model; it has a bed in the back, and a large side door that sticks sometimes when you try to close it. It has shag carpet interior and captain’s chairs in the middle of the van—I’m not certain if that’s right, maybe I added those details when I grew older. In the van Willie Nelson’s voice crackles through the speakers teaching me “mamas don’t let their babies grow up to be cowboys”; the white plastic cased eight-track juts out from the overhead center console.
I’m four years old, and the only place my parents coexist is here in this rusted out van. It’s an odd memory, the two of them together. Not good. Not bad. Just out of place, like the moon over the lunch hour. This van is always parked at the drive-in, for a showing of “Conan the Barbarian”. My brother’s buried in the sleeping bags on the van’s mattress; he isn’t talking, but I know he is here. The movie flashes the future governor of California in a loincloth, with a plot my four-year-old brain didn’t grasp.
Out of the glove box, (or a purse, or center console) Mom and Dad pull a package of tiny candy bars. Hershey’s, Mr. Goodbars, Krackels–tiny bars, in tiny wrappers. They give me one with a bright red wrapper and silver edging. I hold the chocolate and look at it carefully. It is just the right size, filling my palm when I close my fingers around the candy. I am Goldilocks, and this is just right. As I unwrap the foiled paper, I marvel at my Mom and Dad. How did they know I needed a little candy bar? I nibble at the corner of the bar, crunching rice-crisped chocolate as I ponder. How did they make it?
Peeling a yellow wrapper leads me to new realizations. Biting into the bar the combination of earthy peanuts, and sweet milk chocolate causes me to grow giddy; because to have someone make you your very own tiny candy bar you must be very special. You must be very important. You must be very loved.
Sucking the last traces of chocolate from my fingertips, I realize this is our secret, because something this important you can’t share with everyone. So I locked the secret candy-bars in the van, and buried them in the back of my mind.
But sometimes, like tonight, at the sound of Mr. Nelson’s song, the van leaps into gear and drives to the forefront of my mind. A rusted out sanctuary of my childhood, where I am safe, awed, loved and so very special.
(The first four chapters)
By Jessica Conoley
The woman knelt on the loamy earth, staining her skirt at the knees. Her son stood before her, his large gray eyes level with her dark blue ones. She studied him, wanting to remember every detail of his dirt-smudged face. Clasped his small cold fingers in her rough hands. His platinum hair had started to darken this year and was now the color of wheat blowing in the fields, I wonder what color it will be when he is a man? She pulled him to her chest, holding him near to feel the beat of his small heart. She closed her eyes, wanting to preserve the memory of his face.
Even with her eyes closed, the ramp was still there, and in this instant she knew this is how she would see him forever—her boy, Roman, at eight years old, hidden in the shadows of the rock and mortar that led to the high-road. The mountainous climb to the gray skies above had been cobbled together by unknown men in a time when the ramp’s purpose was known. Deceptively smooth in its incline, children embarked on their journey in groups of seven—no more, no less. Leaving their mothers or grandmothers or aunties in the loam. At times, one of the soldiers who stood sentry would have to hold a woman back, to keep her from following the little one they had released to the road far overhead.
“He doesn’t have to go?”
Her eyes flew open, the boy still clutched to her breast.
The soldier stood still, but his eyes met hers. And this she had not expected.
Her son had been the second to arrive. A matched pair was deposited at the guard’s feet late that evening, a brother and sister whose guardian didn’t wait to see them off. The woman watched the guardian until the horizon swallowed his shrinking form. He never once looked back at the twins.
For two days the soldier’s words haunted her. Hunched over the flickering fire that warmed their small breakfast she heard the gravelly voice, he doesn’t have to go. Roman reached for his portion of the grisly blackened meat, and huddled close to the flames as he chewed with slow deliberate bites.
He was such a good boy. She caught his gray gaze and knew his stomach was far from full. The gnaw of hunger always had a seat at their dinner table. Even when he had suckled at her breast, her son was merciful, never making her say, “We have no more.” He ate what they had without complaint, and when there was nothing it was without complaint as well.
Across the clearing the twins shouted, pointing toward the mountains. Holding her hand to shield her eyes, the woman looked, hoping it was a small band of travelers, and not another soul to deposit at the foot of the ramp. As the forms came closer her heart fell, two children and their escorts. He doesn’t have to go.
Now there were six. She turned to the ramp so her son would not see the tears in her eyes. He doesn’t have to go.
On the fourth day, storm clouds hung above the mountains as if snagged on the jagged peaks. The ragged camp watched the horizon, weary of the sleet the clouds would bring. At the mouth of the ramp the earth stretched flat, with no shelter for the children and their guardians. A rough canvas tent housed the soldiers when they slept—but it was barely large enough for two men. Tall grasses bent in the roar of the wind. With each frigid gust, the clouds threatened to escape the grip of the mountaintops.
The woman threw more wood on the fire. She knew keeping a flame going with the wind whipping at her back was reckless. But she wanted to give her boy comfort, and warmth was the only solace she could still provide. If the rain arrived it would douse her final gift to him.
Roman slid his arm about his mother’s waist, and she pulled him in to her familiar warmth. As the clouds escaped the mountains and trudged toward camp, the crisp scent of the rain mingled with campfire smoke. It wasn’t until the storm crossed half the distance from the mountains that the woman realized the full severity.
A step ahead of the rainclouds ran a lone figure, too small to be a grown person—the seventh child.
Wind snuffed the flames. Her boy shivered, and the woman pulled her thin shawl tight about both of them. They faced the wind, and cheek-to-cheek they watched the final figure advance.
The child picked its way through the rough brush with the speed of a winter hare. How could one with such short legs stay ahead of a storm moving so fast? A hop over a large rock followed a sharp twist to avoid a particularly thick tangle of bramble. The urgency of the movement cut to the woman’s soul. Every year at the burning of the fields she saw it in the animals tearing from flame as their dens turned to cinder behind them.
Howling wind could not cover her son’s gasp when the child in the field fell. Mother and son held their breath as one, waiting to see if the figure would recover. But this was not the time for recovery. It was the time of survival. The child rolled into the fall, turning the sky toward the earth before landing on both feet, in one instinctual movement, running as if its energy would never flag, and the storm would never win.
The woman buried her head against her son, unable to watch any further. She shook, but not from the cold that ripped through her bones. She trembled at her core, because the very child that would take her son from her was the best hope her son had to survive.
Rain fell in icy pellets stinging her skin. She turned from the wind, but the boy refused to follow, his shoulders squared against the cutting wind. With his chin raised, he stayed fast bracing for whatever the mountain would send to him.
He doesn’t have to go. She knew as she studied his face it was in this moment that he was already gone.
The child broke through the brush and went straight to the smoldering logs.
The woman studied the layers of rags. Dirt painted every speck of skin a reddish clay color where long limbs poked into view. A tangle of black curls spilled from beneath a thick hood. When the child removed the cowl the woman gasped.
Wilderness herself stared back. The girl’s wide set amber eyes swirled to a pool of green at their center. She wore the rain as if they were longtime companions, and the ice pellets sting had long ago faded to an expected annoyance, much like hunger or exhaustion. Panting, she crouched by the pittance of warmth.
Roman went to the girl, and pulled a piece of meat from his pocket. He held his offering to the waif. “You are 7.”
The girl studied him for a moment and unearthed a bag hidden beneath her rags. Picking a flint arrowhead from the sack she exchanged it for the food. Nodding as the transaction was complete, she said, “I am Seven.”
When the final heat from the meager fire dissipated, she stretched her spindly legs and looked to the rest of the group huddled near the guard’s tent at the base of the ramp. “Why aren’t you with them?”
The woman opened her mouth to speak, but it was Roman who answered. “I was waiting for you.”
Seven nodded. Surprises were something she had given up long ago. “Suss?”
The woman looked at the girl, too surprised at the formal address to reply.
“It’s time for us to go.” Seven said.
The woman nodded. “Yes.” She would save her tears for her empty hovel. Her boy’s last memory would not be of her crying. “Seven?”
“From this day on I take you as my own. You will both come back to me.”
White teeth flashed in a smile as quick as the lightening overhead. “I’m not one to be taken. But him—I will keep him as my own.”
“Thank you, child. Thank you.” The mother pulled her son to her one last time before she watched her boy follow Seven to the base of the ramp. The other children joined forming a small band. And one by one they began the long sloping ascent.
The woman watched until she could see Roman’s blonde head no longer, and then she stood alone shaking in the wind, unable to make herself turn from the stones and mortar that led her son farther and farther from her.
The seven ascended with their gazes fixed upon the slick stones, looking for footholds on the slippery ramp. The ones with soled shoes fared better than the others, but none would willingly be the first to fall behind. If they had looked back they would have seen the soldiers holding back one wailing woman. But no one turned back. The climb was too steep, the wind too fierce, and the stones too wet to warrant the luxury of a last look.
The ramp started wide enough for seven children to walk abreast. Without rails or safeguards, Seven found herself at the edge closest to where the sun should have been. The climb progressed, and as the ramp narrowed the children unknowingly had fallen into the reverse order by which they arrived at camp.
Sure-footed Seven became the leader, as the others fell in behind her. Light on her feet and tireless, she moved as if she had grown up on the side of a cliff. Any concerns about the ever-widening distance between her and the loam were well hidden as she set a steady pace for the small band. The higher they climbed, the more treacherous the ascent became, but Seven bounded obstacles with innate grace that may, to some, have been seen as careless confidence.
Quick at her heels was a boy two heads taller than Seven, but at the age of nine, only one year older. Since his arrival in camp he parceled out his words one at a time, as if they were dearer than the scant rations with which he filled his belly. While Seven moved up the ramp unaided, the boy leaned on a polished staff of blackened wood interlaced with mahogany grain. The staff was even longer than the boy was tall, but he used the tool without hesitation as if it had been placed in his hands on the day of his birth. Prying the staff into crevices when the rain soaked rocks challenged his foothold, he followed with unflagging energy and no complaint.
Three paces behind came a ten-year-old boy with a snub nose. His two front teeth were gone, whether they never grew in after he lost his baby teeth or the larger set had been pried from his mouth it was not clear. He had a peculiar habit of rolling his lower lip in when he concentrated hard, leaving his two canine teeth poking over the soft pink flesh of his lip. Deliberate and meticulous, he would roll his lip under when faced with rough spots on his climb. Examining the boulders and footholds presented to him he would choose his route, taking extra steps to avoid the slightest hint of danger.
The sister and brother matched in pace and the way they placed their weight forward at the balls of their feet when they moved, like dancers of a high court. The curve of their shoulders, the lengths of their hair, their height and build were all parallel, as they always had been for each of their nine years. Their light-brown hair was beaded with icy drops, and damp curls escaped the girl’s braid. Were it not for the pink ribbon threaded through her hair one may have mistaken her for him. She was not timid in her movement, but moved with calculated reservation as if she foresaw the long journey and found no need to expend her energy here at the crest of the beginning. She did not have to look for her brother for she could feel him two paces behind her to her right. For that’s where he had been ever since they had been born.
The brother walked and he watched. He watched their line transition from seven children abreast to follow the leader. He watched Seven skirt the edge of the ramp as they climbed higher and higher. He watched the black staff catapult its master over a large rift. He watched the boy who sucked at his lip and saw the contempt that boy choked on. He watched Roman, timid and full of false bravado, climbing just behind him. And, always even when his eyes were turned toward all of the others he watched his sister. His sister always to his left, always slightly ahead—he knew her footfall and her breath. He did not need to see her to know because he watched with his whole being.
Roman trudged along with the rest. Slowing his steps more and more so the last boy who really was the first boy would not fall behind.
The last-first boy was the oldest. At eleven it was unheard of for him to be here at all. But later, when the children would first huddle together and begin piecing together the tales of who each of them were, he would lie. He would say he was nine and big for his age. Big for his age was not a lie, because at just eleven he sat at the lower edge of being a man. It was clear he had not suffered many lost meals, but muscle lurked low, beneath his soft rolls. His breath came in puffed clouds bursting from his lips within minutes of the climb. The cool wind on his cheeks was a welcome companion once the sweat formed on his brow. He pulled at the muffler about his neck, letting cool air trickle down his spine.
It was Roman who spoke first. “I need a moment.”
The watcher turned and knew Roman was not the one who needed a moment. The sister answered, “That’s fine with us.”
Up ahead Seven was too far to hear Roman’s words. Roman raised his high voice and called, “Seven.”
She turned on a toe, nodded, and hopped down the stones to join the group.
The soldier glanced at the wailing woman, wondering how long she would mourn the boy with the missing front teeth. It was clear she wailed for show—for the benefit of the few who witnessed the children’s departure. A woman who wanted it known she loved her boy best. But the soldier knew she was not the woman to be feared—her fight was for the stage and she had no intent of chasing her boy. She released her child to the ramp with the ambitious look of a mother whose son will come back in great glory making her the most revered woman in town.
No, the soldier did not worry about her—instead he worried about Roman’s mother, Mia, shaking alone at the edge of the group. For the determined mothers, the ones who sheltered their children and kept them close—those are the ones that would sneak to the ramp when the sun went down. Those were the ones to watch.
It was too late in the day for Mia to start her own journey. Best to let the storm pass before she set for home. It was a long walk, and she was not entirely confident of the way. She would need clear skies and daylight to navigate the landmarks on the seven-day trip—seven days if the weather was good. As it was a day of already unimaginable things, she would do yet another thing as foreign to her as letting her boy out of her sight. Tonight she would stay here—with the others. She gathered her scant supplies and joined the group who still remained.
The soldier had followed the wailing woman to the pittance of a camp. The man with a staff resting atop his knees sat on a low log on the perimeter of the fire pit. The ancient man was the only one who spoke as Roman’s mother joined them.
“Not too good to join us now that your precious babe is off?” the ancient man said.
“Leave her be,” the soldier replied.
The ancient man’s words rolled off her like the rain, for there was no hurt worse than the one she already felt. Once the rain ceased spitting, the soldier uncovered dry wood secreted in a nook at the edge of the ramp. A fire was built, and the group gathered close about the flames. If there was food, it was eaten one by one without offering a portion to those next to them.
The soldier offered Roman’s mother his canteen. “It will warm you.”
She shook her head. “I’m fine. Thank you.”
“No one is ever fine who sits where you are. It’s an ugly place to be. Here at the base of that monster.”
She could not argue, so instead she said. “It is done.”
“He didn’t have to go.”
Mia turned her face from him, not wanting to hear the words that had been a constant refrain in her mind.
“Bollocks.” The woman of the toothless child said, “Do you think anyone with any sense would keep them home? My Marcus will do great things once he crosses the ramp.”
Home. Mia thought of her small dug out, and the space where Roman slept. How would it be home without him?
“Look at you, so sure your little moovhall-rat will make it home.” The ancient man chimed in. “What’d you call him, Marcus? From the way Marcus lapped at your skirts he won’t even make it through the first crossing.”
Marcus’s mother spat at the old man’s feet. Cackling, he moved closer to the fire.
The soldier ignored the useless words, and leaned in close to Mia. “She is right. It’s their only chance to be something. The only way they can wear the badge.”
“Aye.” Mia answered as she stared at the flames dancing before her. The fire’s smoke hung over the camp, heavy with the words no one bothered to say.
Surviving the ramp was unlikely, maybe four out of seven would make it across—with the odds of coming home even smaller. But, without access to the other side, choosing to keep the little ones on this side of the rocks—it would have been kinder to smother them before they had the chance to take their first breath.
By the time Roman called for rest, the group had climbed steadily for several hours. The clouds bore down upon them with each step they made, and if the dared to walk too near the edge they could easily catch their foot on a crumbling stone. Nature had worn the road away along the sides, and stones falling from the ramp ricocheted down, bouncing off the rocks below, until they fell to the earth countless leagues below. The path had narrowed to the point where three children could stand abreast.
Quickened blood rushed in their ears as wind whipped around them. Only the large boy puffed, doubled over, holding his knees. The twins melded close to one another, feeding off each other’s warmth. The boy with the staff hunkered back on his haunches, scraping the point in the mortared groove of the rocks in front of him. The boy without the front teeth, the moohvall rat—Marcus, stood at the highest point of their circle, elevated several feet above Seven, the next nearest in the group. They looked to one another, catching their breath and stretching their limbs, but beneath it all stood the silence of not knowing. The uncertainty of being with people you did not know, and the fear of forced trust.
When no one else spoke, Roman raised an eyebrow at Seven. She ignored his silent question, and stooped down to peer into a deep crevice leading to the crumbling ledge.
Roman turned to the group. “I’m Roman, and she’s Seven.” He pointed to Seven who had followed the crevice, and was now lying on her stomach, head dangling off the walkway so she could get a view of the side of the ramp.
The watcher nodded to his sister.
The sister’s voice came out like a morning lark, flitting across the winds. “He’s Ormirr. I’m Toshi.”
The boy with the staff rose to his feet. “Nazr.” His voice was low, and his name was lost with in the wind.
“What?” The puffing boy asked.
As Nazr opened his mouth to respond, Marcus cut him off. “It doesn’t matter, and neither does yours. You two won’t make it through the night.”
The puffing boy’s shoulders fell, and Nazr tapped his staff against the rock over and over again. Toshi stared Marcus straight in the eye. “Your name’s Marcus. I know because I heard your nanama call you a hundred times in less than two moons.”
Marcus turned from the group, inching toward the ledge to get a better view of Seven’s precarious position.
Toshi raised her voice as he walked away. “I bet these two last longer than any boy who has to have his nanama calling after him.”
Nazr’s staff steadied as Toshi asked, “Did you say Nazr?” Nazr nodded.
“What about you?” Roman asked the large boy who had finally stopped puffing.
“Lalor.” The large boy answered without taking his eyes from Seven. “What is she doing?”
The rest of the circle followed his gaze to Seven who’s torso was also hanging off the edge of the road, while her toes dug into the grooves of mortar—anchoring her to the ramp below. Inverted, she clung to the edge studying something on the side of the wall.
“Is she crazy?” Lalor asked.
“Nope.” Roman answered and took a few steps closer to the edge where Seven lie. He squatted next to her. “Seven?”
“Sssssh. Hold my legs.” She answered, her spindly arms flapping above her head toward the ground far below.
Roman knelt at her feet, and grabbed her thin ankles.
With Roman as her anchor she pulled herself even farther down, to a black gap in the side of the wall. Lalor climbed the half dozen steps to Roman, and took a cautious step toward the edge to get a better view of the girl. She plunged her arms into the dark hole, and inched herself forward with another firm pull.
A rock gave way, Seven slipped as Roman’s grip failed. Roman scrambled forward landing on Seven’s calves, as Lalor extended his long arms encircling Seven’s ankle in one hand, and throwing his other arm about Roman’s shoulders. For a few long breaths Seven’s body jerked beneath Roman, and both Roman and Lalor dug their feet deeper into the grooves. Orrmir and Nazr flanked the boys, one on either side of Lalor arms outstretched and ready.
“What’s she doing down there?” Lalor whispered.
Roman shrugged as Seven called, “Pull me up.”
Lalor pulled at Seven’s ankles, Roman sgrabbed her about the torso. The pulled Seven over the rocks, when her hands came into the view Roman finally understood. Clutched in her hands was a large nest. He took it from her as she rolled onto her back, lying for a moment she caught her breath and smiled. “Are you hungry?”