In the middle of the night, in a locked bedroom, a little girl sleeps imprisoned. Her even breath skims across the cotton pillow where her hair spreads like spidery legs.
But a soft stirring in the hallway eases into her slumber: a scrape, a scratch.
Eyelids, drowsy with dreams, separate their tangled lashes. Her sleep-heavy gaze takes in the shadowy hulks of furniture hunkered like ogreish jailors along her wall. She thinks of rich hot chocolate, of a secret foray into the spacious kitchen, that forbidden sweetness on her tongue… if she could get out of the room her father confines her in every night.
But the covers are so warm, her dreams so beguiling.
They lure her back into their arms. Sleep, precious thing. Time enough for chocolate when dawn breaches the horizon.
Her somnolent head dips. Perhaps…
The imprisoned little girl nestles back into covers cozy with heat.
Sleep reclaims its errant child.
And like that, a fate splits.
Wednesday, August 22nd, 2294
Haven, Former Northern Americas, under the auspices of the Coalition
He has a scar. Right… there, by his left eye.
I shade it in on the paper, that shadow of pain like an extension someone carved into his face to continue his irate sweep of lashes. Almost hidden by his black hair.
What cut that scar into his skin?
Hatred? An accident?
Or a loved one in a moment they regretted now, every second they lived?
That would mean someone loves him.
My insides constrict, just a little, and I swoop my pen down his mouth, darkening the furious lines of those thin lips. They’re shut tight in a flagrant challenge to the world to even attempt to pry something nice from him.
He would spit on anyone trying. Say “Fuck you” like he does when we’re in class, when every time he says it, it makes my stomach jump because he’s pushing another person away.
But not me. I never give him a reason to say it to me.
Sunlight spills through the open window onto my paper-littered desk, the gauzy, softly billowing curtains so close their lace brushes my copper hair and grazes my black-smeared knuckles. The city breeze carries in the scents of summer: blooming flowers and mowed lawns, chlorine from pools and sculpted waterfalls in the backyards of other mansions around us, where the affluent residents flavor their lips with strawberry ice and liquor from salt-rimmed glasses. Where manicured nails spread slick suntan lotion on moisturized skin and fortune’s favorites tilt their carefree smiles up to a provident sun shining on their benevolent fate.
In my own hushed mansion, my ink-stained fingers pause above the paper.
Stained from drawing a guy I hope no one loves.
Not because I’m mean.
Not because he’s cruel.
Just because I want someone else out there to understand, and he’s the only one always looking at me.
I shouldn’t look back.
I do, though. Impassive, letting nothing escape no matter how much I want everything to.
Holding everything in has become my face on the magazines. Cascade Andronica, daughter of the richest man in the country. Protected inside the secure mansion of a government puppet. Attending a school her intelligence didn’t get her into. Lying on beds and letting her rich boyfriends do things to her that leave her shutting off and violated inside.
Not that anyone else knows that.
They don’t wander the airy, carpeted rooms of this house and encounter a father who never looks them in their face. A father who speaks to the spot beside their ear, his eyes distant, his voice remote.
Why is it so impossible for him to look at me?
I think I’ve finished the drawing. It’s been a few years since I’ve drawn, though, and there’s too much white space at the edges.
I stand up, my summer dress whispering over my skin, and pick up the twin-blade titanium folding knife to trim off the white space.
With a slide of my thumb over metal comes the quiet snick as one of the blades snaps out, but not the utility blade.
It catches the sunlight like it wants to be a diamond, and I go motionless, imagining.
Elegantly, as everything must be in my world, my left arm twists and exposes the skin of my inner wrist.
The blade slips close like a would-be thief of life.
It hovers over my wrist. Over my veins. A quiet threat to the pulse that takes me from one moment to the next.
One worthless moment to the next.
I’m a waste of breath.
Only one quick slit. A remedy for the unwanted.
Would anyone notice?
Just a little closer…
The knife clatters to the desk and I whirl around.
Father stands in the doorframe, in a tailored white suit, young-looking enough to be my older brother, put-together enough to be an old man, with streaks of gray in his dark hair that gleam more like silver threaded through obsidian.
The spot beside my ear seems to be boring him as he speaks in monotone. “Happy birthday.”
Crap. I’d hoped he’d forgotten. Serlinda must have reminded him. She’ll come in later with a beaming smile and a cake and we’ll celebrate in private, just the two of us because Father never joins in, although she, ever the devoted wife and affectionate stepmother, invites him every year.
I’d hoped she’d not mention it to him this time, though. Now that I’m twenty-two and in my last year of required schooling, he can kick me out. The unloved progeny, the daughter whose test scores shame him.
I hold my breath, my limbs utterly still, the room utterly silent, waiting for those words: “Get out.”
Instead, the silence stretches and neither of us are moving.
Suddenly, it’s too much. I want to tell him. I want to tell him everything.
My mouth even opens to tell him I love him, because if I can just get it out, maybe it will break the spell. Show him I feel things, that I’m a normal young woman—daughter—who experiences emotion but just can’t show it. He would look at me then. Smile at me.
But my lips won’t move and my face won’t betray a single sensation, too trained to relent now. My heart is too afraid of rejection.
Because if I speak and he still turns his back, then I have no hope left at all.
As long as I stay silent, all emotions locked within, I can pretend he loves me but that he just can’t show it, like I can’t.
Please, I beg. Say something.
He steps into the room and I think I might faint from not breathing. What’s he doing?
He’s crossing the cream carpet, past the ivory bed with its cloudy canopy, past my white dressers and prettily carved wardrobes.
He stops directly in front of me—but still outside my personal space. His groomed fingers curl around the knife by my hip. “You’re done with this.”
With that, he swivels around and takes it with him.
I’m left with my drawing of a scarred guy I wish were as unloved as me, with no way to neatly trim the excess white.
I take the paper and rip it.
Leaving the space around his wrathful face rough-edged and violent.
In the middle of it, though, he still remains.
Diary of a sweet toy
I’m at war with my abuser.
Between us, we hold the fate of a city in a constant tug-of-war.
I suppose you could say I got the shit end of the stick, because he’s the leader of this all (of our ass-half of the world, at least, while the UOC – the United Other Countries – are left to fend for themselves) and I’m just a twenty-two-year old, his ‘sweet toy’ (he never calls me anything else), but here’s the thing:
Love, even in its darkest iterations, has a pretty brutal way of leveling the battlefield, and I have a shitload more power now than when I was a girl of fourteen and he first had me.
But I don’t want to go back, don’t want to write down how he bought me from my pitiful father in a filthy auction. I don’t want to chronicle the things he trained my body to do in those early days when he had me in his power completely – in his bed.
The important thing is he thought he’d gotten a kitten when in reality he’d bought a hellcat, and eventually he thought me tamed – and then he let me out.
That’s when I bolted.
Not down to freedom – freedom never lasts when your feet are on the ground in your master’s shadow and the man doling out freedom is your world leader.
I bolted up to where I could make it all end, where I had a choice, and then I gave that choice to him.
Balancing on the roof edge of a two-hundred-story building – the wind a fury around you while the man obsessively in love with you stands screaming too far to save you – that kind of gives you leverage, you know?
I swore I’d jump if he didn’t let me go.
Maybe I should’ve jumped – it’s the only way to truly be free, after all. And I would’ve, but honestly? That two-hundred-story drop scared the shit out of me. Those tiny cars, that furious wind that might smash me against the building windows. I was just sixteen years old, and no matter how violated I was inside, I didn’t want that finality. Not yet.
But I didn’t want the cage, either. I couldn’t go back into that cage, that bed and the food trays and the silent maids and the sound of my own pee and breathing.
But he didn’t want me to fly free.
We compromised. He agreed to send me away and only visit me occasionally, so most of my days would be free. It was like visitation rights. I was the unhappy kid.
He sent me into the utopian city.
Note the words: the utopian city.
Not cities. Not society.
He put me in this utopian place along with all the other pretty prisoners, although half of them—the younger half, aside from me—don’t know they’re prisoners, and the older half don’t think they are. They think they’re the coddled ones, the privileged, the cool cats with their cool plans.
This is where I met him. In the Compound where I stayed with the other teen orphans.
Tall, scowly, bitter, but innocent in his angry way. He was my best friend. He held me while I cried about what our leader had done to me. He murmured that I wasn’t dirty and I wasn’t ruined and any guy would still want me. He whispered everything right in my ear as he held me on his lap against his chest.
He loves me—what man could hold a ruined girl so close like that, be so sweet when he’s so angry and bitter himself, and not love her?
He’s mad at me now because of something I did, but it’s temporary. I tell myself that. I have to for survival, you know?
Even though he’s been snapping at me and pushing me away for years, still I love him and would do anything to protect him.
That’s why I’m at war with Master.
He knows the older prisoners of his utopia are planning an uprising and that eventually they’ll bring in the younger generation. They’re the only ones in the country strong enough to fight back, unlike the others under his rule, and he wants to pluck me out of here and kill them all, but I refuse to go. I carry a pill on me at all times, and if ever he does something to hurt anyone in this utopia – to hurt my angry boy – simple:
I swallow my pill.
It stays Master’s hand.
Monday, August 27th, 2294
I’m standing at the front of our sun-steeped classroom, daydreaming of being a normal human and wondering what being loved feels like.
How would it feel to react to a lover’s touch?
Or better, to have my father look me in the face and smile. Would it feel like a sliver of sunlight?
“Okay, class, now watch the demonstration closely!”
A spider is crawling over Prof’s outstretched palm. He loves his lectures and is about to show us how the red fire works.
I’m holding the fire stick, a ruby flame uncurling from its tip like a tiny hungry tongue.
Of course, I’d rather not be here, the center of attention even though half the students are struggling to stay awake, but Lunar Adurian volunteered me, kicking my desk with his buckled boots over black jeans, and Prof wields his sad face when no one volunteers.
Even with my head bowed, I feel Lunar’s intense gaze on me from under his fall of onyx hair. He’s fiddling with his scalpel while the red fire stick caresses my fingertips, both of them a promise of danger.
Everyone’s screaming, thuds and crashes as they fall from their desks, their bodies contorting.
Lunar lands on his knees, his hand clenched around the scalpel.
For an instant it’s like Prof and I are part of another world, distant and untouched, then a whiff of pungent sulfur puffs over me and something slams through me like an invisible truck. My insides flatten inside my flesh and—
Muscle rips from my spine where my skin bursts open. Agony shreds through my lungs and smashes shut my breath.
I sink in a haze of incredible pain, my body tissue bared to air in a wetness somehow pulling taut around my back. It feels like pools of blood dribbling down my ribs, the others’ screams vibrating from the floor into my shins.
I kneel at the classroom’s fore like a goddess sacrificed on a world gone mad.
A single blink in time, and this is what we become:
Humans with feathered wings in gemstone hues—ruby, amethyst, emerald, sapphire—that flash over our shoulders in the sunlight from the classroom windows.
Lunar kneels by his desk while a span of wings unfolds above his leather jacket: his feathers the sleek silver gleam of a deadly blade.
And Prof’s wings—they’re powdery black behind his panicked expression—and they’re morphing from feathers to something else. His whitened gaze rolls back toward them, whimpers emerging from his lips.
The first spiders drop from the tips of his wings onto his hair and scurry over his face, dropping from his eyelids onto his lips and crawling into his screaming mouth.
More spiders tumble from his wings onto the floor.
In seconds, his face goes black under legions of spiders swarming his skin from his wings until only the whites of his eyes are visible above his mouth overflowing with their moving mass.
More drip from his wings and alight on the floor—and they teem toward me, thousands upon thousands while those on Prof are eating him alive.
Terror erupts inside me and my wings burst like shocks of air behind my head—scalding heat over my skin and pouring from my back. Fire wings billow around my hair and form a sphere of flames expanding outward. Prof is still writhing under his blanket of spiders when the conflagration hits him.
He and the spiders both blaze bright orange like the sun, his skin cracking into fissures like a molten desert, the sound like tiny pop pops, then snap, sizzle—
I wake lying on the classroom floor.
Blood pounds inside my skull. My fingertips are throbbing, my cheek mashed on the cold linoleum, and emotions blast through my heart and my ribs like live wires in sparks and shocks. Starburst-orange spiders scuttle over the floor near my face. They’re scurrying back toward our professor’s corpse—
He’s dead—our professor is dead and I killed him. Something happened with my wings.
Lunar’s hands find my waist, his arms groping at my heaving body, which is racked by violent, sobbing breaths. My wings are whispering over my shoulders—
Wings—we have wings—what did they do to us?
Feathers brush my face as Lunar hauls me up. “Cascade!”
His hands on my chin drag it up and my gaze locks on his for a single bare moment, his eyes as black as pits. Prof—
What did I do? He’s dead and I did it. My wings—
I’m prostrate again and Lunar’s hand is cupping the back of my neck. “Casc—”
“Get her out of here!” A teacher looms above him. She’s all purple wings and shrill voice, a phantasm from some hazy dream whose screaming mouth doesn’t match up with her words. “Look what she did! Get her out of here before we all go up in flames!”
“You fuckin’ cunt!” Lunar rails at her from where he kneels over my sprawled figure. A tidal wave of fury roars through him, livid and shivering into me where he still cradles my neck. “What did they do to us? They did this!”
“Get her off school premises or I’m calling the cagers!”
“You do that and I’ll fuckin’ kill them! You hear that, you sick bitch?”
He’s shouting after her fleeing figure, though. Half the classroom desks are overturned. Some of the students have already fled. One is screaming. A girl slumps glaze-eyed in the corner. Lunar’s wild eyes are taking in our surroundings.
Everything reeks of burned flesh and lemon floor polish and rubber. The taste puddles on my tongue: a viscous icky acid. I’m floating and yet sinking in a quicksand of dread.
The other students jabber and clamor, clamped in their own chaotic mass as they stumble from the classroom to the hallway, where sound becomes a subdued flow and their new wings provide an incongruous backdrop to the silent faces in white-rimmed gazes.
Teachers raise their hands among the throng, their feeble, quivering voices attempting to regain some semblance of order, because they were mutated, too, and no one knows why or what to make of it.
What the freak happened? Why did this happen? Why give us wings?
“Cascade!” Lunar’s voice yanks me to the present, beyond the edge of refuge.
His arms wrap around me and haul me up, half into his lap like a raggedy doll. His fingers slide into my feathers as he does, though, and a shock of something powerful sparks up my spine. I gasp and my hands clutch his jacket, parts of my hair caught in the zipper.
“You hurt? Fuck!” He freezes with my cheek against his t-shirt, my body over-hot from part of his fingers buried in my feathers and the tingling sensation like they’ve gone farther, all the way inside my chest. Those fingers in my feathers are unwittingly melting me inside; my thoughts won’t work. I bite back a moan.
Then his hand moves out of my wings and curves to support my back while his other arm slips under my knees. He picks me up in a whoosh of air as he rises, and for a fleeting instant the old world comes back.
The old mindset.
A Compound orphan is carrying me, society’s precious Cascade Andronica, and everything else falls away and all I can think of is that my father will see this—he’ll see the video because nothing is sacred and everything is fodder, no secrets kept.
My heart wedges in my throat at what he’ll say about it, but then I catch sight of Prof over Lunar’s flashy silver wings and—
I killed him—I killed him—I’m a murderess.
Lunar sets me down on my desk chair, and suddenly his hands are bunching in my hair, his fingers working under the hard braids, and he’s bending in close and blocking everything out.
He stops an inch from my widening eyes. “Are you with me?” he whispers.