7,000 Words

She scrabbled in the dirt, sifting through dust piles, raising turrets and smashing castles. Her hands were coated with grime, the mud dark in the lines of her palms. Pushing her skirt up around her thighs, she examined her socks, gray with grit. She crouched down closer to the earth, and pressed both hands, fingers spread out, into the impressionable ground.

“Ket!” her mother shouted from the doorway of the bunker. “Come to dinner now.”

She ignored her, lifted her hands up slowly, and stared at the print of her palms and fingers. A minute passed. She looked around her and saw the small pile of sticks that she had stacked earlier to represent the fortifications of a city.

Removing the top twig caused the structure to collapse, but she was done with it anyhow. With the stick, she outlined the shape of her hands, marking the curve of her wrist and nails more clearly in the ground.

“Ket!”

She glanced up, her short hair catching in her mouth as the wind smacked her face. The air was sour on her tongue.

“There’ll be storms tonight,” she heard her mother say to someone inside the bunker. “Kick up the dust.”

Storms meant sealed windows and no sunset. It meant masks as they slept, and the old car battery running all night, hooked up to the radiation detector. She was reluctant to go inside.

“You don’t come in now, Ket,” her mother’s voice dropped a note, “and I’ll eat your supper for you.”

She pretended not to hear. The sounds of the trucks on the road, coming home, rumbled in the hot air. A few birds sprung noisily into the sky, scared away from their roadkill. One landed close to her. She ran towards it, and it flapped up and forward, landing again a few feet further on. Cupping her hands in front of her, she crept towards it. The bird cocked its head at her, looking with one eye. The feathers on its neck and wings were black, but they shone almost copper in the sun.

“Here. Kawr.” She tried to imitate the sound of it, but soft and nervous.

The bird ruffled its wings, and then craned its neck back to peck between its feathers.

“Here.” She crouched and held out one arm now, in imitation of the falconer in a picture she had torn out of one of the old magazines.

The doors slammed as the men climbed down out of the trucks. Their voices were one indeterminate grumble. In a rush of dust, the bird flew away.

“Ket.” Her father’s voice left no room for willful deafness. He spoke to the dog who had jumped out of the truck after him. “Get in here, pup, and you eat up her food.”

The dog hobbled into the bunker after him, and her father went in without waiting to see if she would follow. Her throat was angry hot. The other men had already filtered in. The sun shot through the cloudy windows of the trucks, red and unforgiving. She rubbed out the tracings of her hands with one socked foot and turned reluctantly toward the bunker with hunched shoulders.

“We found a tank and twenty-odd guns there,” someone was saying as her eyes adjusted to the dim light.

“You’re not taking down the walls with twenty guns, odd or no,” her mother said. She stood by the fire, the glow of the burning wood sharpening her chin unnaturally. Her eyes looked black.

“But with a tank?” Her father held a spoon up before his mouth but wasn’t eating. The muscles at the back of his jaw were tight.

“It seems to me that there’s no point in any of this.” It was Heva in the corner who said it, but her father looked up at Ket instead.

“Just because you lost your kid don’t mean I should lose mine,” he answered finally, still not looking at the corner, but finally turning his bloodshot eyes away from Ket.

In the silence that followed his words, her mother banged the ladle sharply against the pot over the fire and Heva stood up.

“You shut up, Pim. And don’t you compare what happened to Pete with you not wanting to register your girl. Pete ain’t coming back from where he’s gone. If I could have kept him alive by putting him down in records, by saying ‘hiya, I had a girl and her name is Kettar, and she’s close on nine years old,’ then I would.”

“It’s none of the council’s business.”

“You act like you don’t remember what it was like before.” Heva laughed, but it wasn’t friendly. Heva also laughed when she was skinning jackrabbits. “Like you don’t remember hospitals and certificates, and having names that gave you a right to something in the world.”

“Shut the hell up, Heva.” Ket’s father’s hands were both on the table, balled into fists.

“That world you’re talking about,” her mother spoke for him. “It led us here. And we don’t want no government to have that control over us again. You said you thought the same when you came to us.”

Heva smiled, lips closed. Ket could tell where her teeth were missing, knocked out sometime before she had come to the bunker. She only spoke again when people had started moving for the food and finding places to sit by the table or on the blankets and cots. “And so I do,” she said. “I just think there’s a difference between defending yourself and attacking others.”

No one showed that they heard her. Ket peeled off her socks and threw them into one corner of the room. She sat down at the end of the table closest to the fire and tickled the cold concrete with her toes. Heva cleared her throat, kawr, and glanced at Ket before shuffling off into the back room.

§

“A beer or whatever you have.” Ket threw down two bits and perched on the stool. The bartender glanced at her and then the money.

“Not that I wouldn’t like to do a pretty face a favor —”

“No favors.”

“Have it your way. You’re going to need something more than that.”

She sighed and covered the bits with her hand. The bartender looked at it and then at the bird on her shoulder.

“Which kind are you?”

She shifted in her seat, and with her left hand felt the knife strapped to her leg. She acted as if she hadn’t heard his question.

“Hey,” his voice rose. “Answer me when I’m talking to you.”

She curled her fingers around the bits, feeling the slight delay in the reaction of her muscles. Offsetting the delay with readiness worked most of the time. Not always. She swallowed.

“I don’t see that you’ve got the right to ask.”

“You’re sitting in my establishment.”

“I haven’t been served. As you so rightly point out, I don’t have the money. So I’ll just move out.”

“You think that I haven’t seen your types come through before?” The bartender leaned over the bar and held her hand in place. She looked quickly to either side. Two men sat in a corner, both almost dozing in their seats. Heva rustled in alarm at her shoulder. “So, you’re one of two types. You’re fighting for the government and this here is a hand for your troubles. Or you’ve got this off the black market.”

“Either way, it’s none of yours.” She pulled her hand free. Her left hand had not left her leg. Heva flapped to the bar and cocked his head at the bartender.

“They carry diseases,” he said.

“So do you.”

“Watch what you say to me. I have a mind to turn you in to the sergeants.”

“On what grounds? General cowardice?”

He snarled and grabbed for her arm again while reaching beneath the bar. She avoided his grasp and moved quickly, throwing one leg onto the bar and then pulling herself up entirely. She kicked out, pinning the bartender’s shoulders against the wall. He dropped the small pistol he had only just pulled out. She slid the knife out of its sheath and held it to his throat. This close, he smelled like stale alcohol and fried potatoes.

“The landlord across the street says that you might know where I could find a man called Corvu.”

He stretched his neck as far from the knife as possible. It wasn’t far.

“This hand, it might not be flesh,” she said softly. “But it will move fast enough.”

“The sergeants will come,” he whispered.

She glanced at the drunkards in the corner, their heads dropping to the table.

“I don’t care about the sergeants,” she said. “I don’t care about anyone but Corvu. Tell me where he is.”

“The man’s not stupid enough to be predictable. I don’t know where he is.”

“Think.” She pressed the knife into the skin, so that it gave a little under the blade.

The bartender grunted deep in his throat. “The records can tell you where he works, but he never says things to me.”

She lowered the knife and curled her legs back over the bar. Holding out her arm for Heva, she jumped to the ground. The bird spit a shiny pull-tab into her hand. She slid it into her pocket. The bartender rubbed his neck, clearing his throat again and again.

“I should kill you,” she said. “But I don’t feel it. Perhaps you’ll return the favor?”

He stared at her, hardly blinking. She knew he would call for the sergeants once he thought her out of the way. She slid her bag over her shoulder, collected her two bits, and left the bar.

§

“Here, Ket, help me with the laundry.” Heva pushed a basket at her, flowing over with soiled socks and long johns. She crouched at the door to the armory, listening as best she could through the thick metal to her parents’ voices raised in anger, mingled with the complaints and grumbles of the other men and women.

Heva’s face was very pale when Ket finally turned away from the door. She could only catch one word in three anyways. The woman was almost twice as tall as her, but she carried herself in a way that made her short, hunched at the waist.

“I don’t want to,” she said.

“You’ll do it.” And though Heva looked nervous and her eyes were squinted against the dim light in the hall, her voice was stern.

She thought it easier to do as she was asked than argue anymore. The basket weighed her down as she stumbled behind Heva to the bunker door. It was cloudy outside, the sky still dim with the sand of last night’s storm.

“It’s safe,” Heva told her when she paused there, looking out.

“Low enough levels for the likes of us.”

“What are we like?” she asked but Heva pushed her forward.

She didn’t have shoes on and the dirt was sharp and stung her feet. The air was hot and pressed in on her as if intent on pushing through the skin and saturating her blood. Heva had already moved ahead and was waiting by the water tank. She stooped down and turned the spigot. Water bubbled out, thick and gray. Heva let it run for a minute until it was clear, then shoved the washing tub underneath the spigot. Ket dropped the basket beside her.

“Stay here and help,” Heva ordered her when she stepped back.

She shook her head and turned her back on the tank. The sky was almost black on the horizon, and there she could see the faint lights of the town and the spiky silhouette of its fortifications.

“It’s dark still there,” Ket said, her words redundant but necessary to her.

“The soap.” She knew that Heva’s hand was outstretched with the ball of soap that made her fingers powdery and itchy. She shook her head again.

All the trucks were pulled up in a circle around the bunker as if to provide an extra wall of defense. The antennas for the radio stuck up like whiskers over the domed roof. It was a small edifice against the backdrop of sand and sandy sky if you were looking at it with your back to the town on the opposite horizon. There was a road that cut through the dirt somewhere between where Ket stood and the endless waste, but it was hard to pick it out.

Heva had given up speaking to her, so Ket moved out further, weaving back and forth as if looking for tracks or patterns in the clumps of brown grass or among the fine pebbles. As the darkness lightened on the town’s horizon, a flock of birds whirled up into the sky as if dragging the black clouds away with them.

She watched them as they flew toward the bunker, swift and straight, flecks of light glinting off of their feathers. If any animal were akin to the night sky, it would be this constellation of birds.

“I want one,” she said to herself.

“What was that?” Heva shouted from behind her.

“I want one of the birds,” she said, turning back and running toward the woman. Heva was bent over the tub, her arms sunk into the water and red from the harsh soap.

“You don’t have enough ill omens in your life?”

Ket looked at her and did not say anything, but she set her lips together until she was almost biting them. Heva glanced up and when she saw the girl’s face, remorse or shame or a blush crossed her face.

“Those are birds with revenge on their mind,” she said as if to distract Ket. “They remember a face and they pass that memory down, one from another. But they can’t do anything to purpose. They’re small and they steal trinkets and whatever shines, whatever takes their eye. They brood and they skulk and they wait.”

“They’re beautiful.”

“Nothing’s beautiful anymore, Ket.”

She said it with the determination of doing a chore. Heva stared into the water and not up at her anymore. Ket turned her eyes back to the skies and to the flock of birds still aloft.

“Who are they angry at?”

“What?”

“Who do they remember?”

Heva dropped the soap in the water and had to fish it out again. Her face was flushed. “You talk too much.”

Ket frowned and moved away again, prancing, walking, weaving out away from the bunker. Soon, the sound of Heva splashing clothes in the water and the rattling of the sand hitting the metal sides of the trucks faded. There was a heavy silence and she slowed and stepped quietly so as not to break it. The birds were diving in towards the ground. They landed with rustling and rough laughing and hacking sounds. She crouched down, her knees digging into the dirt. This time she did not try to imitate their own noises. She searched the black eyes and oily feathers to see if she recognized one bird from many.

At first, the birds pecked at the ground, ignoring her. Then one lifted its head, and Ket thought she recognized the glint of his eye.

“Do you remember me?” she whispered. The bird threw his head back and swallowed down an insect he had snapped up.

§

“Press your thumb to the panel.” The clerk’s voice was bored. He pointed to a luminescent square attached to the wall next to the glassed-in desk.

Ket looked at it, then leaned her face closer to the glass. The clerk looked up as her shadow fell over him.

“I’m just looking for information on a friend’s workplace,” she said, trying to smile.

“I still require ID,” he answered, an edge of annoyance present now. “Thumb, please.”

She settled back and pushed her thumb firmly against the panel. The clerk craned his head forward until his forehead was almost bumping the glass to confirm that she was performing the action correctly. He murmured to himself, and typed rapidly at his computer.

“I’m sorry. It must not be working.”

She dropped her arm. He glanced at her hand as her index finger twitched once against her leg.

“Perhaps if you used your other hand.” He narrowed his eyes. You should know that the machine can’t read prints if they aren’t there.”

“It won’t make any difference,” she said.

“Your left hand is natural, yes?”

She raised her left hand and pressed it against the glass. “Yes.”

He jerked his head toward the panel impatiently.

“But I’ve never been registered,” she said.

“That’s impossible,” he answered without moving his eyes from her face. A red color was creeping up his thin neck from the collar of his standard-issued uniform.

“It seems to be.” She provided no other information.

There was a silence between them. She heard the carousel door whisk open and shut again. There was a noise of footsteps on the parquet floor and the shuffling noise of someone waiting behind her.

“I would like to know where Corvu works.”

“All children born after the bombs are to be registered within their own precinct. This information is gathered annually by councils and sent forward to be included in the databases.” He sounded as if he were reading from a training manual.

“That makes no difference now.” She had not removed her hand from the glass.

“I’m afraid,” he paused, and the sentiment was true independent of the larger sentence. “I can’t release any information to an unregistered citizen.”

“Here, girl, move on, will you?” The man behind her was impatient.

“I need to know where Corvu works.”

“I can’t —”

Braced by her left hand, she swung her right up and into the glass. Cracks splintered across the surface. The clerk jumped up and backed to the far wall of his cubicle. The only door out, though, led into the foyer where she stood. The man behind her grabbed her shoulders, attempting to restrain her. She turned on her heels and used the momentum to throw her left hand, her hand of skin and bone, in an uppercut to his chin. The man’s teeth crashed together. He stumbled back.

“Give me info on Corvu and I will leave,” she said, spinning back and placing both hands on the glass. Tears stung the back of her eyes.

“Do you have any other name for him?” The clerk crept back toward his console. “Please, give me a full name and I will hand over whatever information you want.”

“All I know is Corvu.”

She kept an eye on the man who now leaned against the wall, holding his face in his hands. There was blood on his fingers. The clerk worked frantically on the keyboard and screen, swiping left and right through the images stored in the database.

“I have only two men by that name who live in this precinct. Father and son. But he’s a former member of the council.” He looked up nervously at her. “I hope the bounty is worth it.”

§

She lay in bed and listened to the drone of the batteries. There was a gentle clicking noise beneath the hum and drone that she imagined to be insects dancing and singing outside. Or the black bird clacking its beak at her, its eyes lit up with something like recognition. It was hard to breathe beneath the mask which pinched at her cheeks. She sat up and looked to see if anyone else had yet come to bed. The room was empty, the cots and mattresses spread in a neat line from her to the door, blankets spread this way and that, but with no one using any of them. There was no blinking red light, no shrill of alarm, so she knew the battery was running as a precaution. It would be safe for her to remove her mask for a few minutes.

She slipped the mask down beneath her chin and breathed in deeply. The bunkroom smelled close and stale. But there were lighter notes of herbs and soap which reminded her of where her mother slept, and where Heva usually lay. She herself smelled like water and old towels. Her mother had insisted on giving her a bath, despite her father’s grumblings of wasted resources. The blankets felt new and rough on her legs because her legs were clean. While she sat and looked around the room, dimly lit by some lamp from the hall, she idly picked dirt out from under her fingernails and toenails.

Perhaps it was because she had fallen asleep again that her mother’s screams seemed so unusually loud. She opened her eyes, found herself leaning against the wall, still sitting up. Her mother roughly yanked the mask up over her face. The lights were on in the bunkroom and in the hall, but her mother still looked gray.

“Up, Ket. Up and with me.” There was no time for socks, and it was rare for her to wear shoes, so she ran after her mother, barely keeping herself from tripping, her feet slapping against the cold concrete.

She saw Heva, and then was three feet beyond her. She glanced back over her shoulder. The woman was standing in the hallway, her face crumpling. She was not wearing a mask. Neither was Ket’s mother.

“Is it the dust?” It was hard to speak or shout loudly enough while running, while struggling to keep hold of her mother’s hand.

“It’s not radiation,” her mother said.

They were not running deeper into the bunker. They were running toward the door. The door was open and Ket could see the desert and sky. There was a roaring sound now, louder than the batteries.

“Quiet, Ket,” her mother ordered before she had a chance to ask another question.

Her father was running towards them from an intersecting hall. “Too late,” he was screaming, and his face was entirely red. It looked like there was blood on his cheek. “Too late!”
Then there was an explosion. The floor shook beneath her.

“Get her away from here, Re.” Her father was waving wildly at the open door.

Ket ran toward it, but her mother’s hand had fallen free from hers. She was turned away from the door, looking at her father’s back as he retreated further into the bunker.

“What are you doing?” Her mother’s voice cracked between anger and tears.

“The guns,” he shouted, hoarse.

Ket stood in the doorway, watching them both, her mother overlapping her father, like two paper dolls cut out with the greatest care.

“Give it up!”

“No.” He stopped and turned and looked at her too. “I can’t leave them, Re. It’s years of work.”

He said something else, because Ket saw his mouth moving, but another explosion drowned out any words. She grabbed at the door, backed out until she felt the sand under her feet.

With the third explosion, she saw light before she heard anything. The hall was suddenly gone, replaced with clouds of fire. She stumbled further back, gasping for air. She ripped off her mask and threw it from her. Hot air blew violently over her. She held out her right hand in front of her face, edging backwards. There was flame then in her skin, in her hand. She saw the flesh peel backwards as if releasing some waiting fire inside. She screamed and ran from the bunker, throwing herself down into the sand beside the water tank.

There was insufferable heat, and then she felt very cold. She could not feel her hand at the end of her arm, but she could not really feel her legs or arms or toes either. There was a sound of screaming and something whining in the air, a noise of metal cracking in a furnace.

“I left my socks inside,” she said quietly to herself.

§

She climbed in through a second-story window via a drain pipe and a conveniently placed bunch of cables. The house was fairly well kept up for a town still recovering from being in one of the central blast radii. Before she climbed over the sill, she crouched there on the side of the house, fingers dug into the wood of the frame, and glanced down below and to either side. The alley was empty, but she was more interested in the view over the fortifications of the town. She’d been told that before the bombs there had been buildings which blocked out the sky, but now she could see unobstructed beyond the stakes of the wall. She could see the dark sand that drifted up against the town. She imagined she could see beyond the horizon, to blackened rubble and a single water tank still intact but useful to nobody but nomads now.

Heva fidgeted nervously on the sill, inching her talons close to Ket’s fingers. Seek cover, he said. Kawr, he said. Perhaps he had seen the sergeants milling through the main streets, eyes on the alert for a slight woman in black clothes and the weapons of a bounty hunter. She lifted herself over the window sill. There was a twinge in her hand where the skin had cracked over her knuckles.

The room she found herself in was for a child. There was a gas mask on the nightstand but it was partially hidden by a sports jersey and a mechanized toy that would occasionally spasm as if the batteries were dying. She stood still, looking from the bed, to the nightstand, to the pastel walls. It was something like what she had seen in the old homemaker magazines. When her mother caught her with this type of magazine, she had been ordered to toss it in the fire. There is no point, her mother would say, but Ket could no longer remember what there was no point in doing. If a boy lived in this room, he was a magazine boy, two-dimensional, glossy, and constantly amused.

She had known that Corvu would have money as a former council member, as a current drug runner, but was still surprised at all the tokens of it. The portraits on the wall, the rug on the floor of the hallway, the running water in the bathroom. The house was silent except for her wanderings, the creak of her footsteps, the stifled amazement of her breath, the soft click of her gun at her belt when she moved. She found Corvu’s room. A large bed dominated it, but there was also a mirror, and a bureau, and a small bookshelf of paperbacks. She ran her fingers over the spines of the books. She could not read the titles.

She lowered herself into a sitting position in the corner furthest from the door. She pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her right hand, with the gun, on her knees. Shadows shifted across the floor as she waited, crossed and criss-crossed by the light coming through the blinds. Dust motes drifted in the sunlight, hard to see individually, but almost overwhelming in their cumulative number. She reached one finger out and watched the dust part around it. Her finger was alight, the sun reddening the flesh, turning it transparent. Her bionic hand trembled and the gun tapped her knee. She bit her lip.

She could no longer remember what her mother’s face looked like. Of her father, she could only call to mind his silhouette running back into the bunker. There were words and parts of sentences in their voices, but the silence, with a deafening noise of its own, was growing.

Kawr. Heva’s talons ticked at the wooden floor as he hopped towards her. He stopped in the light, and his black feathers were copper, and his eyes were translucent.

“Maybe he will not come home. Maybe the clerk will tell him that I am waiting for him.”

Heva cocked his head to listen, snapped his beak at a dust mote.

“And if he does not come back, where will I look?”

Heva opened his wings. They were always wider and longer than she expected. His shadow stretched out ragged against the lines of light. He kicked off from the ground and came to a clumsy landing on her knee. His talons pinched her arm as he moved to her shoulder.

They waited, as the light grew dim between the blinds. Absently, she picked the dirt out from under her nails.

§

Something was picking at her face, sharp and frequent. Ket opened her eyes. It was dark. The stars were clouded by smoke and she could hear the gentle crumbling sound of a dying fire. She sat up, panic welling in her chest and throat. She threw up and wiped her mouth absently, eyes searching for something she recognized. Behind the water tank, a rosy glow illumined the blackness of the sky, turning it red, yellow, pink, and then blue, before fading back to black.

Kawr. She looked down. The black bird was watching her, poised as if to fly away at any sudden or unfriendly moves. The red of the fire was reflected in his feathers. She put one hand on the tank to steady herself and pulled herself upright. Edging around the spigot, she was forced to stop abruptly. The sight of the destroyed bunker hit her, stunning her, sticking her feet to the ground. She was aware that the sand was still hot where she stood. She stumbled forward. The bird, alarmed by her jerky movements, fluttered up into the air and landed further away.

“No! Stay!” She was desperate. The numbness frayed at the edges of her consciousness and she felt a pain, huge, immense, pressing in on her. She was scared, terrified, that if the bird flew away, it would take with it, like a thread unraveling, any small amount of control she had.

The bird hopped an inch closer. She fell to her knees. The ground was gritty and warm on her skin.

There, in the shadow of the tank, she waited as the sky lightened in the east. The fires of the bunker settled as the red of the sky sparked and grew. Wings and feathers tickled her ankles. Occasionally, the bird dipped his head and nipped at her leg, but he did not leave.

When the morning was so close that the air had turned cold and the sky like gauze, she heard trucks across the desert, their engines backfiring. She saw them, a line of four trucks, cutting off from the road and toward the bunker. There was a moment when she thought that it was her father, or at least other men that she knew, back from a raid. But these trucks were uniform, painted all one color. They moved in sync and, when they came close, spun out into a circle to surround the front of the bunker. She pressed herself closer to the tank.

“They’re done,” a man said, climbing down from the driver’s seat of one of the central trucks.

“Should we check for injured?”

The first man walked toward the bunker and kicked at the debris furthest out from the fire. Ash exploded into the air like dandelion fluff.

“If they’re injured here,” he scanned the desert, “then they’re dead.”

“Corvu,” one of the other men shouted and the first lifted his head. “Councilman on the radio for you.”

Corvu took the comm and leaned his head over it so that his face was just a shadow against the rays of the new sun. “I can report that the dissidents have been taken out, sir.”

She leaned back so that she no longer had to look at the trucks, or the bunker, or the silhouette of the man on the radio. When she heard the engines roar again and the sound of the pebbles spinning out under the tires, she peeked around to see them leave.

She made herself look at her hand. Feeling was returning to it. She screamed, and the sound of it chased the men back across the desert.

§

He came into the bedroom like a tired man. His head was bent over his arm as he unstrapped his watch. His shadow on the floor grew closer to her, though the light had fallen to dusk now. She hardly breathed, watching him. Her left hand tapped silently on the cloth of her knee. The right was still and gripped the gun. Her index finger hovered stationary over the trigger.

So the clerk had not tipped him off, or at least the news had not reached him yet. And the bartender had not called the sergeants. It seemed extraordinary luck. The silence in the room was heavier than any four walls could hold. The city held its breath, waiting. It knew that Corvu had to die.

He looked up. He saw her. She stood up.

“Who are you?”

“A dissident.”

It was a word that had meant nothing to her for a long while. Or, at least, it had meant only what her parents were. She knew the word better now.

He was thinner than she had expected. But he was also older. In many ways, he was not the man she had seen while she crouched behind the water tank. He stared at her as if waiting for more explanation, and she had no more to give. Even as she studied his face, she could remember the shadow of his head in the desert sun. But she could not see her mother’s face or her father’s.

“Those are birds with revenge on their mind. They remember a face and they pass that memory down, one from another. But they can’t do anything to purpose. They’re small and they steal trinkets and whatever shines, whatever takes their eye. They brood and they skulk and they wait.”

She could remember Heva talking at her, and the sound of the water gurgling into the tub of laundry.

“Why are you here?” He knew, but he asked anyways.

She hated him for being the face that remained, the face she remembered.

“There’s a bounty on your head.” All of what she felt she had no words to say.

“Trade union?” He hooked his thumbs under his belt and settled into a bartering stance.

She held the gun out. Her arm was straight. Her hand did not tremble. It was not designed to.

There was a silencer on the gun, so when she pulled the trigger, the explosion was muted. There was a sensation of flame, a flash only a second long. Heva screamed and threw himself into the air. A black feather drifted in the air between the barrel of her gun and the white wall beyond marked with red. Corvu slumped to the ground.

§

“Here’s your latest kill.” Kiernan waited on the printer, hand outstretched to catch the paper before it fell.

She looked up. Heva’s talons scrabbled on the tile at her feet.

Who is it?”

“Corvu Meiter. Retired councilman in a desert town some fifty miles from here.”

She stared at her hand. “Not a bad deal, is it? A hand in exchange for a job. You’ll be a productive member of society.” Kiernan held up a coin, blackened from use. Mints were no longer operational. “Or a coin in your pot and I leave you alone.” She sat, with her legs bent up near her chin, a bowl for coins at her feet. Though she felt shame for it, she held her right hand out in front of her when she begged for money.

“Why does he have a bounty on him?”

Kiernan examined the bulletin. He wore glasses with one of the lenses knocked out when he needed to read things. She had been working with him for going on five years now, and she still forgot the color of his hair and the shape of his nose when she wasn’t looking at him. He was a man bred for forgetting. It had proven useful in his line of profession.

“One of the first things you have to remember,” he told her, sitting by her bed as the technician examined her hand. “You remember the bounty. No one remembers you. It’s the only way to get by. Otherwise, you make one kill and you’re out.”

“Seems he’s angered some unions down that way. They want him out of the way for negotiations.”

“That’s all?” It seemed that if this man’s name were to be spoken again to her, that he would be connected with some greater crime or some greater virtue. His death deserved a more fitting reason.

“We’ve had bounties for less. You want me to pass it on to one of the others?”

He was, strangely enough it seemed to her, not an unkind man. That said, the first thing she learned when her hand was healed and functioning properly was to shoot a gun with it. “Sight down the barrel,” he reminded her as they practiced in the shooting range he had set up behind the old run-down apartment complex that it seemed Kiernan owned. “Always best if you can take care of the target from a distance. This business runs on anonymity.”

“No. I’ll take it.” She stood up. Heva flew to her shoulder.

“He’s said to frequent this bar.” He handed her the bulletin, tapping at the list of known addresses. “Make some inquiries.”

“Yeah.” She folded the paper up and stuffed it in the pocket of her jeans.

§

It was almost completely dark in the room before she moved again. She could only see by the street lights outside the window. Corvu, or what had been Corvu, looked like nothing more than a pile of blankets at her feet. She put the gun back into the holster under her jacket. She waited for Heva to come back to her from wherever he had been rummaging in the room. When he did, he held a bright metal wire in his mouth. She took it from him and threw it back to the floor.

Kawr. He turned mournful eyes on her.

“We need to leave,” she told him.

She moved out into the hallway and pulled the bedroom door closed after her. A shadow shifted opposite her. She stood still and waited. In the gloom, she heard shoes shift on the carpet. Hesitantly, unsure if she was marking herself as a target, she drew out her lighter. With a rasping click, a little flame flickered near her hand. In the small circle of light, she saw a boy pressed up against the wall, his eyes wide.

What had he seen? Her breath caught in her throat.

“I’ll call the sergeants,” the boy said, so quietly she almost couldn’t hear him.

Heva shifted on her shoulder. The boy did not move.

“And what would you tell them?” She kept her voice quiet as well.

He didn’t answer. She flicked the lid over the lighter. The hallway fell back into blackness. Footsteps pelted down the hallway to the further bedroom. She heard the static of a radio and the boy’s voice, trembling.

“Someone shot my dad,” he said. “A woman with a crow.”

She put the lighter back in her pocket and zipped up her coat. Though there was no wind, she felt cold. Heva’s feet dug into the jacket and into her skin beneath. She went down the steps, and walked through the empty rooms. The back door was unlocked. Before she opened it, she listened to the floor creak above her.

Anonymity, Kiernan’s voice whispered in her ear.

§

For a day, Ket could not force herself to move. She drank water from the spigot and she grew hungry, but the pain clouded out any thought of finding food. In the moments where she could think, she tried to recall the maps in the dining room, the names of towns, and how far away they were. When night came, when the stars stabbed at her, she thought to put her hand beneath the spigot. The water, lukewarm as it was, reduced the burning.

The black bird had left, but he came back now. His eyes scanned her over, recognized her face and her voice when she whispered to him. “Here,” she said. “Please.” He dropped something wrapped in shiny foil near her. As best she could with her left hand, she unwrapped the small piece of hard candy, melted and stuck to the foil. The sugar on her tongue almost made her cry.

§

She stopped in an alley three streets over from Corvu’s house. It was dark and empty, occupied only by a haphazard pile of crates. There was one street light that she could see from here, and it was far away, a yellow blink against stone buildings. The night was warm.

She crouched down, her back against the crates. She pulled her knife out and laid it in the dirt, close to hand. In the gloom, Heva’s wings brushed the ground and the crates as he searched for something only he felt the need for. She pressed her right hand into the dirt, but could not feel the fine dust or the pebbles.

Kiernan smiled. “It’s to both our advantages that you were never registered. To them, you don’t exist.” He gestured away from the yard, out over the town.

“Heva.” Her voice caught. The bird shuffled in the darkness and hopped near her. She could barely make out the black of his wings against the black of the walls and ground. Reaching out her hand, she stroked his neck with one finger.

A woman with a crow.

She crooked her finger around the bird’s throat. When he began to struggle, she slipped her whole hand around. His feathers were greasy. His voice rasped in terror.

Her memory was as dark and empty as the alley. She could see only the desert and the water tank. She could see her hand red and black and mangled. Before Corvu’s trucks, before the crackling radio and the lightening sky, it was night and she was in pain. Her parents were gone, and she could not remember their faces.

E. K. Wagner is a speculative fiction writer, whose work has appeared in Perihelion, The Colored Lens, and the Devilfish Review, among other publications. For her day-job, she teaches at a small Midwestern university and researches the intricacies of medieval religious heresy. She is an avid and competitive board-gamer, and binges TV with the best of them. You can find her online at https://erinkwagner.wordpress.com/.

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