A face smiled. She was so beautiful. But then she looked up. Her smile was gone. She was distressed. And then a man. He was stern, and burned so brightly. It hurt. He looked on, with a thousand shifting eyes, and grew brighter and brighter and brighter and—
stop it dammit Lenchka stop looking at me like that you’re making me feel bad this is not how it’s supposed to go don’t you see this is what I’m supposed to be doing this is my royal duty and your royal duty this is what princesses do Princess and you need to learn sometime so STOP LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT
—and there was a loud crack! Blood and bits exploded out the back, plapping against the dirt. He looked on, with two burning eyes. He was stern, and burned so brightly. Then he yanked his hand back with another crack! A big hole was left behind. A smile flickered, and then went out.
She felt sick.
Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh, said the brush. Cricket songs rang all at once through the night like some kind of musical rattle. Hundreds of tapping steps below, a storm of murmurs and talking and shouts, the breath of cloth over skin, the light clink of metal tools. And then…
It all seemed too loud, too sudden, too much.
Where was her cloak?
She nearly puked. With a whispered wingbeat, before she could take it back, the feeling was carried like a message.
It’s okay, Yesutė. I’m not far and Doviluzė’s right there with you.
The skin was folded underneath her.
A feeling of stillness swept through her, from the outside in, calmed her stomach. Then she caught her breath.
I’m sorry Doviluzė. Sashukas. I didn’t mean to send that one out.
It was dark still, the moon a white sliver in the sky and stars glittering. Good. Lena didn’t want the sun to be out.
“Ay, Lisaaaa, cojemeeee, este duele como perra…”
“I know, I know. Breathe with me, honey.”
A jacket had been draped over her. The night air was cold and she was shivering, but she’d been sweating. Her hair stuck to her face, and her clothes to her skin. Even the jacket was damp.
Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh. Dovilė flicked a glance her way.
Are you alright now, Lady?
(this is what princesses do Princess)
Suddenly, Lena wanted to puke again.
“You’re doing beautifully, mi—Carmen, just a little more!”
“Metetelo por el culo, pendej—NNNNNNNHHHH!”
But it was easier not to this time. And she didn’t send the feeling out either. Instead, she drew her trembling fingertips across her forehead, rubbed them on the coin, and then held it up to the air.
It’s just nightmares. Maybe she should apologize. Sorry again. I kinda sweated all over the jacket.
The wing-beat of a breeze that carried her thought off licked the coin and her fingers dry and spun around her once in delight at the treat before flitting away.
A faint, high, gasping cry poked through all the other noises. The brush paused.
“You did it, Carmen, sweetie—you did it. The hard part’s over.”
The breeze returned, bringing a pop-up kind of feeling, almost as if Lena herself had jumped up to standing. She almost did.
Ah… ! Doviluzė, Yesutė, did you hear that!?
No. Dovilė sounded tired. I heard nothing—not the screaming, the cursing in Spanish, the crying. None of it.
Sorry. Stupid question.
That’s okay, Sashukas. I still like you.
Lena got the feeling that she should be heading downstairs. But it felt weird, going without Dovilė. So she pulled the coat tighter around herself and waited.
The cry quieted down.
Quickly, Dovilė abandoned her brush in favor of the rag, swiped the metal parts clean in one pass, and clacked and clanked the parts into place. Her knuckles and tendons (“flexors,” Alvaro called them) shifted under her hands and the muscles in her forearms appeared and disappeared as she worked, but her breaths remained steady, calm, even. Finally, with a final sharp click, the rifle was put back together and replaced in the soft, dark brown leather case that always smelled faintly of damp wheat whenever it was open. The cleaning tools quickly followed, rolled in the greasy towel and stowed in one of the inner pockets.
“Ten fingers and toes. Strong pulse, strong lungs. What a melody, Carmen.”
“Look at her. She’s beautiful.”
“Wow, a—a girl… ? Wow.”
Then Dovilė took a long breath in, drawing the orange brand down the length of the cigarette, and then let the smoke escape from the corner of her mouth as she pressed the butt into the ground next to her with a thumb and forefinger. She rose, slung her rifle case over her shoulder, and then grunted to Lena, the last of the smoke puffing out of her nose at the sound.
Lena pushed all the noise to the back of her head and spilled down the stairs with sure feet. She waited at each landing for Dovilė, whose boots barely even tapped on the steps. In a long time or a short time they were through the hall and in the waiting room.
Pretty much everyone was there. Ms. Menmatre was sitting, her hands tight on a bag in her lap. Ms. Swift was in a seat, her leg bouncing up and down in a blur. She pulled a cigarette from behind her ear and popped it in her mouth, then thought twice, lifted up her cap, ran a hand quickly through her hair, and stuck the cigarette back behind her ear. Sofia was kinda the opposite—she was sitting still, probably because Galen was sleeping against her on one side and Ms. Moe was on her other side, her head resting against Sofia’s shoulder. Ms. Moe wasn’t asleep, but she looked like she wanted to be. Ruben was sitting on the ground, playing with Hector. Mr. Jordan was slouched in a chair, his hands hanging between his knees. Ms. Moore was sitting up perfectly straight, her eyes looking far away and her ear turned toward the double doors. Senbast’s head was resting on her lap, with a magazine that was older than he was draped over his face. Mr. Myers and Mr. Marsh were flipping boredly through a different magazine. Even Ms. Yeong was there, watching Sasha pace around the room, a confused look on her face. He looked kind of like it was his birthday. Dovilė made her way to Sasha’s side. She looked like she was looking far away, too, like everything was a dream.
A face smiled. She was so beautiful.
Everyone was just… waiting. No one said anything. Not even Sasha or Dovilė. There wasn’t much noise coming from behind the double doors. It really was like a dream.
He was stern, and burned so brightly.
She was starting to feel a little sick again.
Lena didn’t want dreams anymore. She was tired of feeling sick.
No one was anywhere near the double doors. No one was looking at her. So she pulled her cloak over her head and took in a breath and sucked in every last wind of her walk.
And then she moved past everyone, past Sasha and Dovilė. She pressed one door just barely open and slipped through.
Door after door after door. The noises behind them weren’t the right ones, though, so Lena continued.
“Brendan, can I see your hand, please? … Brendan?”
“Hm? Oh, uh… I’ll be fine.”
“True, but… a couple of your metacarpals are fractured.”
(Metacarpals—she knew those. They were the bones in the hand.)
“It’s nothing, Suze. Don’t worry about me.”
“Let me at least wrap it up.”
There. Lena stepped through the door.
The room was small. The bed took up most of it, and the counters. There were two chairs, and a space in the middle.
Ms. Simon was on one side of the bed, her glasses on her head, looking like she hadn’t slept in a whole week. She brushed back Mrs. Gorman’s hair gently, with one hand. Mr. Gair was in the other chair, fidgeting, trying to look over his shoulder at the bed as Ms. Ray bandaged his hand. Mrs. Gorman was sitting up on the bed, sweat beads all over her face, looking down. The baby was resting on her chest, under her hands, looking kinda bluish pink and soft and a little wrinkly. From what Lena could see, besides the white towel that wrapped around them both, they were naked.
“You look right at home already,” said Ms. Simon, her voice real quiet.
A small smile spread across Mrs. Gorman’s face. She didn’t look up. “Yeah… Not a peep since Susan handed her to me.”
“I meant you, Carmen.”
Mrs. Gorman looked up then. She looked even more tired than Ms. Simon, and so sad. But, despite all that, her smile grew, pushing through.
She was so beautiful. Like in the dream.
No. No more dreams. Lena carefully crept closer, and stretched her hand out. It was shaking. Why was it shaking?
Mr. Gair almost bumped into her. She held her breath and jumped back away from him all at once. Her heart pounded like a sparrow’s wings. She moved to the corner of the room and tried to stop her heart from beating so loud, hoping that no one would hear her. There were too many people around—the room was too small. She started feeling sick again.
And then… and then Ms. Ray, after washing and drying her hands, said, “I’ll be right back, to get you some fresh water. If you need me, I’ll be just across the hall, okay?” With that she left.
Lena let out her breath.
Mr. Gair sat down in the empty chair beside her, carefully, as if something would happen if he weren’t gentle with everything he did. Just as carefully, he leaned over, but made sure to keep his distance. He was smiling really wide, so big that it looked goofy. Lena had never seen Mr. Gair smile before. He’d seemed too scary to be so goofy.
“So… what… what’s her name?”
Mrs. Gorman looked at Mr. Gair. “She looks like a Summer to me.” Her smile turned hurt again.
His did too. He swallowed and his face twitched a little, as if pushing back against his own sadness. Then he let out a little laugh that was choked by a sob and reached out toward her. Ms. Simon watched him, her face tight, with a little bit of a question written on it. He noticed, and pulled back.
Mrs. Gorman noticed too. She looked over to Ms. Simon. “Do me a favor, Lisa, and let everyone know I’m… we’re okay? I’m pretty sure can hear Ange vibrating in her seat.”
Ms. Simon thought about it, nodded, and, after gently squeezing Mrs. Gorman’s shoulder, she left. It was quiet for a while after the door clicked shut.
Lena carefully stepped out of the corner, taking care that every step was as quiet as she could make it.
After a couple moments, Mrs. Gorman looked over to Mr. Gair. “You make a terrible Brendan.”
“Yeah.” Mr. Gair sniffed, swallowed again, and brought his bandaged hand up to his eye. “I’m trying.”
“I know.” A couple of tears ran down her face. “Shit… this is gonna be weird but… mi… mi corazoncito… Hold me, please. Before Susan or Lisa gets back.”
Mr. Gair scooted closer and pressed against the bed, carefully winding his arm behind Mrs. Gorman. She rested her head against his shoulder. He rested his head against hers, watching the sleeping baby.
Lena felt like puking again. This was wrong. She wasn’t supposed to be in here. This wasn’t like Sasha’s and Dovilė’s thoughts—it wasn’t something that was being shared with her. It felt a little like stealing.
Yesutė, where’d you go? Are you alright?
Lena almost jumped. Her heart started pounding again.
Wait, hold on!
Lena swallowed. Well, she was here whether she was supposed to be or not. And… and she would tell Sasha and Dovilė, and they would tell her what she should do to make up for it. Maybe she’d have to fess up and apologize to Mr. Gair and Mrs. Gorman. Maybe she’d be grounded for a while. But she didn’t want the dream anymore.
Ms. Ray’s footsteps started coming back.
Now or never.
Lena ran forward, making fast, little, silent steps, her heart beating twice as fast. Then she set her hand on the baby’s cheek.
She was very small and very warm. Her breaths were even tinier than she was, but hot. Her skin was as soft as the petals of a lily.
Then her face scrunched up and she started moving and making noise.
Lena snatched her hand back. Neither Mr. Gair nor Mrs. Gorman seemed to notice that she was there. She pulled away, waited until Ms. Ray opened the door, and then quietly slipped out.