My vision was veiled in gray, and I had been dying inside for hours.
Grimly, I stared at the ceiling and listened to the silent house surrounding me. The wind nudged at the eaves, whistled in the cracks, until I could pretend I wasn’t alone. I lit no lamps and I didn’t kindle a fire in the hearth. Darkness suited me better.
Forget me. Stop staring at me with those begging eyes. I can’t be what you need, now. I had said that to Deuce on her naming day, there was only silence between us, and then… she brought me a gift.
Earlier, I had been working in Edmund’s shop when I heard her come in. She murmured to her father; I didn’t hear what she said.
But his voice carried. "Fade’s in the back, cutting patterns."
"Go on. He’s welcome to take a break. Hard worker, that one… doesn’t talk much, though."
That’s because my words are gone. I lost them in the pens.
I closed my eyes for few seconds, bracing to see her. From the darkness in Deuce’s eyes when she regarded me, she thought it was easy for me to walk away from what had happened. But it was like a dance across a field strewn with razors, and I bled with every step I took. Never in my life had I been so far from deserving what I most desperately wanted. She strode into the back room, a tight space littered with tools and scraps of leather, with a fierce, determined look.
Joy, there was always joy for an instant whenever I saw her, but awareness chased it away. She deserves someone better, stronger. My face froze. I set down the awl I had been using to punch holes in the leather and tilted my head.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
I didn’t expect it would take her long to give up—and to figure out what I already knew—that she could do better. I’m not whole. I’m livestock. And even if I lived to be an old man, I could never, ever forget how it felt to watch the Freaks turn Frank into haunches of meat, tied up for roasting. Parts of him, they devoured raw, blood smearing their monstrous fangs, and then they dragged me on. Taking a breath, another, I kept from shaking so she could see, clenching my hands on the underside of the workbench until my knuckles whitened.
"I see that you’re unhappy… you feel trapped. But I can help."
"What do you mean?"
She explained, "Longshot left me his house. I wouldn’t like living alone, and I don’t mind Edmund or Momma Oaks. So you can stay and take care of the place. It’ll give you more peace. . . more privacy. Nobody will bother you there."
There were no words sufficient to express my gratitude, but I tried. "I… really appreciate this."
"Do you know where it is?"
I nodded. "Longshot had me over once."
She put the key on the counter, and I picked it up. The metal was cool and heavy in my palm. That’s her legacy, not yours. But you’ll take it, so you have a place to hide. Coward.
You should’ve heard them. You should’ve fought harder.
"That’s all, then," she said. Deuce hesitated, and I could tell she wanted me to ask her to stay. If I could wind my watch backward and be the person I was before, I’d do it, but I couldn’t, and it seemed kinder to let this end. In some bleak corner of my heart, I remembered my father and how he had been after my mother died.
That’s what happens when the sun goes dark.
Before, he was full of stories and laughter. We moved around a lot, running, hiding, but there was always brightness Topside. My father had a slim bag of books that he carried, no matter where we sheltered, and each night, he read to me from one of them. During the sunny season, he taught me to swim at the river with my mother looking on. There were dangers, but we were cautious, and my father had friends around the city. I liked visiting our family’s friend Pearl, and I loved listening to tales wherein people didn’t scavenge to survive. These stories taught me about better ways to live.
We’ll go when you’re older, he’d say. You must be strong enough to keep up.
Only we never left. Instead, my mother got sick, and she went so fast. I watched her get pale and thin; she couldn’t keep her food down. After that, my father was a shadow. He tried, but his smile was a dead and frozen thing. It didn’t even surprise me one frosty morning when I crawled out of my blankets to find him cold and still. That same despair rolled through me now, echoes of how I felt sobbing and pounding my father’s chest.
Deuce’s eyes were dark as thunderclouds as she stared at me. I held her gaze for as long as I could bear and then I dropped my eyes to the swatch of leather on the table before me. I wanted to reach for her, but my hands were filled with lead.
And then she left.
I worked a little longer, but Edmund heard stirrings in town that made him shoo me out of the shop and hurry home. Unmoored, I strolled through Salvation, head down. Close to the green, I heard Caroline Bigwater ranting, but that was so common that I didn’t stop to listen. Nobody spoke to me as I let myself into Longshot’s cottage, the sanctuary Deuce had given me. There was nothing in the house to eat, just dust and cobwebs, but that suited me fine.
The shadows were lengthening when I settled in the chair before the dead fireplace, and I was still sitting there when the knock sounded, though I had shifted my gaze from the ceiling to the empty chair across from me. With a faint sigh, I got up to answer it, ready to wish my unwelcome guest to the devil. The caustic words died in my throat when I found Edmund standing there with a basket covered by one of Momma Oaks’s embroidered napkins.
"Can I come in?" It was still light enough for me to read his expression, and he appeared to have something weighty on his mind.
"Of course, sir." I stepped back and let Edmund in.
Things had been cool and uncomfortable at the shop since Deuce’s naming day. He loved his daughter, and he blamed me, rightfully, for hurting her. But sometimes there was no cure but a clean break; in my case, I’d only bring her down with me. I considered what she’d risked to pull me out of the horde, and I couldn’t take the chance she’d repeat the foolishness.
"Please thank her for me," I said, unfolding the cloth.
Inside the basket, I found a dish of hearty stew, a round of bread, butter, and a wedge of apple spice cake. It didn’t seem right to eat while Edmund sat watching, so I wrapped the meal back up and said, "Care to sit?"
Joining him before the ashen hearth, I waited for him to speak. He didn’t fidget, only fixed me with a steady look that made my stomach churn. Shame made me drop my eyes, and I braced for him to tell me I wasn’t welcome in his shop—that he had no desire to teach me about leatherworking any longer. I was ready for that.