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“'Neath the fullest of moons,
under the hanging tree,
you'll not find the song of thee.
Nor is it heard in icy waters deep,
nor over cliffs of snow so steep.
Where, you inquire, will be found this sweet song o' ire?
Look east of the hill.
For in deep of night, from yawning maw of cave, my song is sung at the blackbird's
Song of the Blackbird Witch
1. The Invitation
Mysteriously left for me.
A year to the day apart.
The rust edging the graveyard’s gates nipped my palm, but I ignored the sting. The pain would be gone soon. Every pain would disappear with the morning dew. I would be in control again.
Mist slinked into the valley, and fading moonlight glimmered through the bare trees. Their shadowy limbs stretchedacross the grass in silent screams. Even the headstones seemed to glow. My sneakers barely whispered as I wandered among the deceased, avoiding cracked grave markers and decayed bouquets of flowers.
I could do this. I wasn’t just relieving my own burdens. Ending my agony would take theirs away as well.
I wouldn’t hurt anyone, anymore.
A siren grew in the distance. My hand shot into the deep pocket of my brother’s itchy sweater. The crinkle of paper and smooth curve of a handle calmed my thrumming heart. There was no way my parents had gotten up yet. Unless they had heard the click of the safe’s lock?
The long stretch of grass between the trees calls to us; we emerge from the woods and turn our horses onto the gas pipeline. This part runs along the crest of a hill, and there’s a sharp drop on either side. The trail is about twenty-feet wide, so there’s plenty of room for Brianna and meto walk our horses side by side. All the trees were cut down long ago to make room for laying pipe underground.
A few months ago, I would have wanted to walk next to her. It’s easier to talk that way. Now, I’d rather squeeze through a narrow trail in the woods behind her and glare at her back. I try not to look at her, even though she’s got this adorable curl falling out of her helmet. It’s not fair—she always looks good when she’s riding. My helmet’s old and beat up and, judging from my visor, crooked.
Brianna begged me to go riding with her today and I said I would, even though she doesn't deserve my company, after how she acted last month. But when Brianna asks you to do something, you don't say no.
“So, you have any crushes?” Brianna says.
“You can't just ask me that.”
I see a hawk circling overhead and I pause for a moment, entranced. It glides on the high, unseen currents, dipping to one side and then to the other. I haven’t seen a hawk on one of these trips before. They prefer live prey. Behind me and across the field, where my path meets the trees, a couple of large crows are picking apart a dead squirrel. My dead squirrel.
I can hear the earth groaning beneath me.
It started when I was 12 and taking confirmation classes at St. Mark’s. I left church each week confused by the lesson on the Ten Commandments. What was adultery, or covetousness? Who wanted his neighbor’s ass? I certainly didn’t.
I was doodling a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. Just like the planes my dad flew. The wings were looking nice, and it was the best sunset I had ever drawn. You should have seen those rudders. Amazing rudders.
And then she smiled at me.
At first, nothing. I was lost in the sky, right along with my Cessna. Its wings spread across the college-ruled notebook paper, the propeller blazing toward my algebra homework.
But there was a double-take. Again, I looked up. She was still smiling. Smiling with those massive green eyes. At me? Of course she was smiling at me, I was the last seat in the back row. But I said nothing. It would have been okay to stay silent, but I stared. At least three, long seconds. I imagined these were like the last three seconds of a kamikaze dive bomb.
Holly prayed for the 403 bus to crash. "Go and join the queue," her mother repeated, as their car idled by the sidewalk.
She prayed for it to happen at the top of Dane's Hill two miles back, with a long skid into the heather. Sore ribs, nose bleeds. Nobody should actually die, unless they were perverts or terrorists.
The 403 arrived in perfect roadworthy condition. In the waiting car, her mother’s impatient fingers tapped on the wheel. Mom didn't ask about the bleeps in her pocket that started at breakfast: eighty, maybe ninety text messages hitting Holly’s phone, each ping like a drop of acid. Holly gathered her coat and bag, and left the car without a word.
She messaged Sheryl as the queue shuffled forward.
"Where u at?"
The tightness in Holly’s shoulders eased a little.
Your letter lies on my bedroom floor where I let it fall. I’ve already memorized every word.
Dear Margaret Evelyn Beach,
What the hell, Dave? We barely dated for a month and you’re using my middle name? My sister the swan princess probably told it to you. She’d walk off a cliff as long as someone asked her in Russian and set it to music.
This is hard for me to explain-
Really? This is hard for you? I‘m stunned. Jamming a note in the slats of my locker on the last day of school was apparently the best you could do.
-and I hope you’ll understand.
Chapter Eight - It's Not Any Better
Hayley and I stomped our feet on the way up to the back door of Aunt Georgia's house, trying to get feeling back in our toes. This time of year was always cold, but it was twice as cold here, out in the middle of nowhere with no trees around. The wind blew hard enough to nearly knock us down. It stung our eyes and cheeks, and our fingers ached pretty quickly. It was worse for me because I didn't have gloves. Sometimes I got so mad at the wind, I swore into it, but the wind just took my words away. We had started riding our bikes to the stable in the mornings because it was faster. I had mostly forgiven Hayley for abandoning me at the party, so we were back to normal, laughing little frozen clouds out of our mouths as we rode.
Chapter Seven - My Education
Who needed school, anyway? I learned a lot from Hayley. Stuff like how to take care of horses, where to download music for free, how to ride a horse, and how to bum rides into town from Jared, one of Aunt Georgia's four farm workers. Hayley also taught me how to ride a bike, since Momma had never had the money to buy me a bike and we would've had to leave it behind somewhere, anyway. Most important, I learned how to keep quiet and stay out of Great Aunt Georgia's way. That old woman was every bit as mean as she was that first day when she yelled at my sister for singing.
Chapter Six - Beginning Again
Bo had never met Great Aunt Georgia, so her place was the safest place for us to be. That was why Momma packed up Sydney and me and as many of our things as fit into the car and drove us the entire length of the state. We left everything else behind. While all the other kids in the last town were getting ready to start school with their new backpacks and shoes, we were eating gas station donuts and watching Illinois go by out the window. There was no air conditioning in the car, so we kept the windows rolled down. Wind blew our hair all over the place, and Momma blasted the radio louder than the wind. We yelled along instead of singing along with the music, and Sydney hooted and screeched with laughter every time we went over a bump and the pile of bed pillows fell onto her.
Flat cornfields and soybean fields whipped past us, and Momma seemed happier with every mile she put between Bo and us. I didn’t remember much of anything about Bo, but I felt lighter as Momma’s mood lifted. For the whole day, it felt like we were back to normal, just the three of us and a new start. Everything that had happened over the summer seemed less and less real.