as the girl pulled the canoe out of the water her foot caught on something hard and she tumbled into a nearby tree. she regained her footing, got her canoe ashore, then shimmied free from her life vest. catching her breath she looked around and noticed a tan rectangle peeking through the ferns. she heard tires crunching on gravel as she walked closer to the river. a wooden slat box, two feet wide, sat on bent and broken ferns. the box smelled of pine and its metal hinges were shiny grey.
twigs snapping made the girl glance up; her sister stood a few feet away.
"look," said the girl as she turned to the box.
she pushed aside ferns and revealed the tan slats; painted on them in thick fresh black strokes was a six and a four.
the guy ducked beneath tree branches hoping for relief from the sun’s piercing rays. after walking for hours in the sweltering heat, vehicles speeding past ignoring his sign, tires spinning ever more dust into the hazy air, he had reached a forest.
sunlight speckled the leaves around his feet and stubbornly ignored his attempt to seek shelter. he breathed in heavy air which clogged his throat and made him cough. retrieving his water bottle he plopped the tablespoon of liquid it contained onto his parched tongue then dropped it into his sweat-drenched backpack.
at the sound of a car approaching he emerged from the trees. his sign, a tattered piece of cardboard, was perched against his duffle. the driver spared not a glimpse and sped by.
the guy tossed his backpack beside his duffle and trudged away into the forest. a thicket of blackberries and raspberries overtook the path a short way in and he greedily emptied the nearest branches.
edging around the thorns he ate until he was full and then eased himself from the bushes. on his way back toward the road he felt less restless, his hunger temporarily satisfied. the sun dappled the maple leaves and the pine boughs, then fell onto a cracked box beside the trail.
curiosity piqued, he knelt beside the wooden box; two of its rough slats were split in half and dirt was caked onto the corners. brushing the slats clear, the guy revealed an eight and a three painted on one side.
he pulled the box from the bushes and set it beside his duffle. even with the cracks he could not see what was inside.
as he stood to stretch a car slowed and pulled onto the shoulder of the road. he waved to the driver and they waved back. the driver was a tall man who approached in long, quick strides. he smiled in greeting and extended his hand, pausing in mid-air.
the smile faded fast and his hand retreated to his side, his gaze locked on the wooden box. without a word the driver turned and fled to his car.
specks of dirt hung in the air as the car’s taillights grew dim.
the dog’s black eyes shined with joy as each bound of his short legs brought him closer to the lakeshore. when his owner’s voice called his name, the dog flopped onto the dewy grass beside the dock to wait.
“good boy,” said the man when he caught up, scratching the dog’s ears.
the man strode over to a tiny shed at the water’s edge and unlocked it while the dog stared longingly out at the glimmering purple water.
“no fishing today, boy,” said the man as he emerged from the shed pushing a cart loaded with two large wooden boxes, a three and a seven painted in large numbers on the outermost box.
after the man took away the cart a fifth and final time, the dog darted into the shed and eagerly sniffed the fishing rods and tackle box stuffed beside a cabinet in the corner. when the empty cart clattered into the shed, the dog barked at his owner and gently nudged the tackle box with his nose.
“maybe next time,” said the man, scribbling something on a pad of paper before ripping off the top sheet.
the man retrieved a tin from the cabinet and stuffed the paper inside, then strode to the door.
the dog reluctantly followed his owner, sparing a hopeful glance toward the dock before jumping into the truck’s cab; no boat arrived at the tiny dock.
with a sigh, the dog flopped down on the seat facing the window.
“good boy,” said the man, scratching the dog’s ears before pulling the truck onto the twisting gravel road.
the girl pulled the wooden box out of the ferns and smiled at her sister.
“it’s like the treasure hunts we had as kids! c’mon, let’s open it!”
she could feel her sister glaring at her from beneath her hood.
“c’mon! it’ll be fun!”
“no. help me get this into the truck.”
“fine,” the girl sighed. “you’re no fun.”
when the box, canoe and paddles were in the back of the truck, they covered everything with a tarp.
“we’re destroying that box the first chance we get,” said her sister as they drove up the tote road.
“you don’t even know what’s inside!”
“yes, I do.”
“what is it?”
her sister didn’t answer.
“I don’t see why we had to take it if we’re just gonna get rid of it; maybe someone else could’ve used it?”
“is it a weapon?”
“in a way.”
“will it explode?” asked the girl, growing nervous.
“what does it do?”
they turned onto the main road and dust stirred in their wake.
“it makes people disappear,” said her sister quietly.
“being invisible would be cool,” said the girl with a sigh. “can I at least go invisible once before we destroy it?”
“I didn't say invisible. it’s complicated.”
“if it’s dangerous and complicated, then why’d you risk bringing it along?”
“because it’s not safe to have lying around.”
“like in the bed of a truck?”
“no, like in the wrong hands.”
“are people after us now that we have it?”
“it was probably an amateur, so they’ll get the flak. with any luck, nobody’s noticed it’s gone.”
“can you tell me anything about it?”
her sister was quiet. the girl looked away and focused on the road ahead.
when they stopped at a stop sign, the girl's sister shuffled in her seat.
“you use it when you want to disappear,” said her sister as she lowered her hood. “this is what happens when you change your mind;” thin white lines crisscrossed over her face, spiralled around her neck and ears, and weaved around her fingers, shining like gossamer.
when shadows began to stretch across the desolate gravel road, the guy tore his sign in half and kicked the wooden box, cracking it more. he threw the sign onto the ground and turned toward the forest trail, hoping to find the berry thicket before dark. just as he reached the trail headlights flooded the road and dust spun into the air. a two-door car with peeling red paint and a large rust patch on the hood approached. light fell on the guy’s duffle and the box beside the road; the painted eighty-three shone in the headlights’ glare.
the car skidded to a stop and the driver’s door flung open. a woman with red-brown hair flecked with grey and vivid blue eyes strode toward the guy, stopped in the shadows and glanced at the box and the destroyed sign.
“do you want a ride?” she asked.
“sure,” he said hesitantly. “yeah.”
the woman plopped the box onto the backseat, hastily threw a blanket over it, then got in the driver’s seat and slammed the door; rusty specks floated to the ground. the guy snatched up his duffle and followed.
“is that yours?” she asked, swerving the car onto the dusty road.
surrounded by dense forest, shadows engulfed them; the only light came from the car's headlights.
“no,” the guy answered, growing nervous. “I found it.”
“do you know what’s inside?"
keeping her left hand on the steering wheel, the woman rummaged in the backseat and dropped something onto the guy's lap. "here, you look hungry."
the woman had given him a lunch tin; inside he found a sandwich, grapefruit and unopened juice box.
"thanks," he said.
the guy ate as they drove through the night in silence.
long after he had placed the empty lunch tin at his feet, they turned onto a grassy lane. the woman slammed on the brakes in front of a faded grey A-frame house with a broken-down porch; she took the box inside before the guy had even unbuckled.
when the guy went into the house, he found the box sitting on the kitchen table. the woman appeared from the hall with a brick and smashed open one corner; the sides of the box fell away revealing bundles wrapped in thick wool.
“you wanna see?” she asked, slicing the wool open with a knife.
the guy leaned over and glimpsed individually-wrapped mirrors; the woman ripped a handful of mirrors from their cocoons and turned toward the stove.
she filled a pot with a silvery liquid, then lit the stove. with tongs she placed one mirror in the pot.
“what’re you doing?” asked the guy.
“can’t we just smash them?” he asked, cautiously peering in the pot at the mirror dissolving slowly into liquid. “I just thought, my neighbour said he just smashed his, and -”
she turned to him, pearlescent lines wrapping her face, ears and neck.
“a skilled Craftsman can repair smashed mirrors, only melting them down will neutralize the parts.”
“oh,” said the guy. “you seem to know a lot about this.”
“my sister and I invented them.”
“won’t she be angry?”
“I'm sorry, I -”
“don't be; she tried to kill me,” said the woman. “hand me that sheet pan.”
the guy handed the woman the sheet pan and she poured the silvery substance from the pot onto it, spreading it out with her knife. she poured more liquid into the pot on the stove and placed another mirror inside.
“you wanna try?” she asked, stepping away from the pot. the guy stepped up and followed her instructions. when they poured it out onto another sheet pan he noticed her studying him. “you know, some people like being able to disappear; why are you helping me destroy these?”
the guy finished spreading the silvery substance, handed her back the knife and placed more liquid in the pot.
“my neighbour, well they said his lines would fade, they say everyone's faded over time, but it was seven months after and his still hadn't.” he put another mirror in the pot and watched it begin to liquify. “if I had known what was in the box before you arrived, I would've smashed them all.” he turned to the woman. “my neighbour, he was only twelve; there's no age limit, you know.” he poured out the liquid onto a tray and began to smooth it. “they won't stop until it happens to someone they know, until it hurts someone they love.”
“and maybe not even then.”
“here we are, boy,” said the dog's owner, scratching the dog's ears; the truck had pulled up to a rundown grey farmhouse.
while his owner unloaded the boxes, the dog explored the woods. when the dog returned, his owner was heading inside. the dog followed. the farmhouse's entryway was small; to the left was a narrow door and double doors stood ajar straight ahead. curious, the dog padded over to the double doors and glimpsed a few rows of benches. his owner pulled him back by his collar as the narrow door opened and another man stepped into the entryway.
“here’s the key,” said the dog’s owner.
the other man pocketed the key and handed over a wad of bills in exchange. “here.”
metal clattered on wood through the double doors, but the dog resisted the urge to explore the sound.
“it’s less than last time,” said the dog's owner, frowning at the money in his hand. “what gives?”
“we’ve lost some boxes on your route over the last week. we recovered two, but at least three more are still unaccounted for.”
“I don’t know anything ab-”
“no, you don’t,” said the other man, smirking. “heck, I thought you’d be a natural; your dad did this for what, forty years?”
another clatter came from the next room.
“yeah; both my parents worked at the factory.”
“too bad it shut down after those sisters went missing, huh?”
the dog's owner remained silent.
“you don’t seem convinced. maybe that’s why the crates are missing. getting cold feet? skimming us off the top?”
“then prove it.” the man pushed open the double doors with a grimace as another clatter echoed through the room.
scattered among the rows of benches were a few people, each one holding a mirror. the woman nearest them blurred into nothingness and released her mirror; the man snatched it in midair and thrust it at the dog’s owner, then pushed him onto the bench.
the dog hopped up beside his owner.
“fine, the mutt can stay too,” the other man scoffed. “c’mon, I don’t have all day.”
with a shaking hand, the dog's owner raised the mirror to his face and his form immediately started to blur. within a few moments, the blur turned to mist and the mirror grew cloudy.
when the mist had almost dissipated, the man reached across the dog and struck the mirror to the floor. the form of the dog's owner grew vivid once again before he crumpled onto the bench beside the dog. a network of vivid white lines curled over his face and neck. the dog licked the face of his owner, who was breathing raggedly, but the lines remained.
the licking continued until the dog's owner grunted and pushed the dog’s face away. he sat upright, blinked in the dim light and stared at the bench in front of him where the misty form of a young girl had become translucent. the man in the aisle watched silently.
the dog’s owner pushed off from the bench, leaned over the girl’s shoulder and reached toward her mirror. the other man pushed him away and the mist evaporated; metal clattered on wood as the mirror fell to the floor.
“what're you doing?” roared the other man, his narrowed eyes flashing with anger at the dog's owner.
“you can’t do that to a child!”
“you’re weak!" spat the man. "anyway, her parents brought her."
the dog's owner looked around; the room was empty. "they're gone."
"disappeared. it happens. you know that."
"I didn't know what it felt like until now!"
"you're pitiful! I endured it fine!”
“you’re not a child!”
“my dad wanted me to try it but that one sister refused to let him; maybe things would’ve been different after she left.”
“the factory exploded after the sisters left!”
“still on about that, are you?”
“my parents died! almost everyone died!”
“yet you, of all the incompetents, survived! why is that? now you're trying to take it down from the inside?”
“I came to work for you, didn't I?”
“you don’t anymore!” the man got closer and pushed him onto the bench as the dog’s bark echoed around the empty room. “tell me where the crates went and you can keep your job," hissed the man, whisking out a knife and slicing the air with it.
the dog jumped toward the man and bit his leg but was kicked away and blackness took over.
the girl’s sister pulled up her hood and drove in silence until pulling off at a gas station. while her sister pumped gas, the girl went inside to pay. a tall man was talking at the counter with the store owner; the girl overheard their conversation as she selected snacks. “yeah. I ran into a hitchhiker who had one of those boxes,” said the customer. “I didn’t want to take any part in that; I drove off as soon as I saw that box; I’m not gonna be their delivery driver.”
“well, there was a Melting Raid not too far north of here the other night, so she probably knows what’s going on.”
“true. it’s just, when kids in the neighbourhood start showing up with lines, I get concerned. if adults want to do it, fine, but don’t involve the kids.” the customer looked up as the girl approached. “you can go ahead,” he said, stepping aside.
“thanks,” she said, placing her items on the counter. “pump three.”
“good time of year for canoeing,” said the owner as he rang up her things.
“yeah,” she agreed.
“well, be careful,” said the owner.
“do you think that hitchhiker was dangerous?” she asked.
“well, maybe. but they’re not too common around here.”
“still, you can’t trust any of those from the old factory,” said the customer. “but, if their recruits are this lackadaisical, she may have hope yet,” he added, with a knowing glance at the owner
*** “thanks,” said the girl's sister when the girl arrived in the truck with snacks.
they turned onto the road and the girl thought over what the men were talking about in the store.
“did you hear about the hitchhiker around here recently who had a box just like this one?” she asked her sister.
“well, there were guys in the store who were worried the hitchhiker was a recruit for a group from some old factory. they thought he might be dangerous.”
her sister glanced back to the bed of the truck. “I don’t think that hitchhiker was dangerous,” she said. “but hopefully he was found by the right people or he’ll be the one in danger.”
“well, since this box isn’t the only one, people probably know something is up, especially with the raids.”
“yeah, one of the guys said there’s this lady raiding the factory people’s places. he seemed to know her.”
the girl's sister looked back at the tarp.
“did they notice the box?”
“no, just the canoe, and they hoped we had a good trip.”
“are you sure?”
“yeah,” said the girl. “you’re looking really pale; you okay?”
“they said there was a raid recently?”
“the other night, somewhere north of here.”
“they saw the box, I bet they saw it! if they know her, know what she’s -” her sister broke off and looked backward, then focused on the road ahead and drove faster.
“are you okay? I don’t think they saw it, they would’ve said something.”
“no, not necessarily,” said her sister anxiously. “there’s somewhere I need to go. I can drop you off at a hotel first, or you can come with me - it’s up to you.”
“are you in danger?”
“I…do you want to come? we’re almost out of town.” the buildings were becoming farther apart and they had just driven by the last streetlight.
“okay,” said the girl. “I’ll come with you.”
the sisters drove wide awake through the night; the girl had started looking back as often as her sister to check that the tarp was fully covering the box.
as the sun was beginning to rise, the girl's sister turned the truck onto a narrow gravel lane. after a short drive into the forest they reached a gate; the girl was surprised how her sister unlocked it with expert swiftness and then continued driving. farther down the road a fieldstone hut nestled in a small clearing came into view.
the girl's sister parked in front of the hut and said, “c’mon. follow me.”
as the girl followed her sister to the hut, she caught sight of a narrow bubbling stream at the edge of the clearing. upon entering the hut, the sisters had to duck beneath rows of dried flowers and grasses hanging from every inch of the ceiling.
“here,” said the girl's sister, thrusting a large canvas bag into her hands. “fill it with herbs.” she motioned to the ceiling. “take everything,” she added, before dumping a box of silvery stones into her bag.
the girl carefully unclipped one bunch of herbs, then the next.
“take the whole strand - stuff them in,” said her sister. “hurry!”
the girl tried to be less gentle and within a few minutes the small room and its shelves were almost bare.
“grab that tin,” said her sister, motioning to the only remaining item on a nearby shelf.
the girl glimpsed a collection of scraggly papers inside the tin before handing it to her sister.
“thanks, now bring these to the truck.” her sister looked around at the empty room and sighed. “I won’t be long.”
after the girl had put the two bags behind the front seats and covered them with a tattered blanket, she saw her sister running toward the truck. when they were driving through the gate, the girl noticed smoke billowing through the trees.
“did you burn that hut down?” asked the girl, wide-eyed, as they sped toward the main road.
“you said there’d been another Melting Raid; I had to act fast!”
“I said a raid! I don’t know what a Melting Raid is!”
the girl's sister put up her hood and pushed the bag of snacks toward the girl; “you should eat, it’s nearly time for breakfast.”
the girl wasn’t hungry but she drank some water and studied her sister’s face in the dim light. “how’d you get those lines?” she asked.
her sister burrowed farther into her hood and shook her head.
“what’s going on?” she asked more gently.
her sister sighed. “the box in the back has mirrors in it. you use them if you want to disappear.”
“yeah. at first I thought they were harmless so I joined up as a Gatherer and collected the raw materials the Craftsmen use to make them.”
“are you going to make more? is that why you saved the ingredients?”
“no,” said the girl’s sister, meeting her gaze. “I want the mirrors destroyed.”
“what changed your mind?”
“I tried to make one - well, I did make one - and I used it, but it made me relive that whole fight when Mom and Dad stopped talking to me.”
“they’ve forgiven you, we all have.”
“it was still a horrible memory; I couldn’t take it and ended up smashing my mirror and got these lines.” she pulled her hood up tighter around her face.
“but it was supposed to make you disappear?”
“yeah, that’s what they say happens if you hold on long enough.”
“oh. so, what are Melting Raids?”
“the woman who those guys at the store were talking about, the woman who invented the mirrors, she raids mirror trade places to melt the mirrors.”
“even though she invented them?”
“yeah. she invented them and started a factory with her sister. as time went on she wanted to stop making them and they had a big fight. the woman’s sister died in the fight and the woman never returned to the factory. eventually, the factory shut down after a big explosion that killed lots of the workers. some of the surviving workers kept making mirrors, but I’ve heard a few remained loyal to the surviving sister. when you said there’d been a raid I got nervous because last week the Crafting Shop I deliver supplies to was raided.”
“so that’s why you burned down that hut?”
“yeah,” said the girl's sister, looking around nervously as they drove through a village. “the group has ways of finding people.”
“so, you’re in danger?” asked the girl in a shaking voice.
“yes, but I’m trying to get out of danger,” said her sister as she turned into the dooryard of a circular stone cottage on a hill. a tower was set behind it. “that’s why we’re here.”
she took a deep breath and turned off the truck. the door at the base of the tower opened and two figures strode toward them.
“wait here,” said her sister, pulling the canvas bags onto the seat.
“no,” said the girl, taking one of the bags. “I’ll come too.”
“you don’t need to, you’re not involved.”
“I just witnessed you burn a place down!”
“you didn’t ask for this,” said the girl’s sister nervously as the two figures, a man and a woman with weathered faces, approached.
“look, I might not know about this mirror thing more than you’ve told me, but you want out, right?” asked the girl. her sister nodded. “then I’m going to help you get out. okay?” her sister nodded. “I’ll bring these and you bring that box.”
the girl took the canvas bags and hopped from the truck, closing the door before her sister could object.
“I recognize you from the raid,” the woman said to the girl’s sister. the sisters set the box and bags before the couple. “a Gatherer, correct?”
the girl's sister nodded and blushed.
“a Craftsman, too, from the look of this,” said the man, pulling a shattered mirror from one of the bags.
“my first, and only,” said the girl’s sister in a rush.
the couple exchanged a glance, then the man smacked the corner of the box with a brick and it fell open.
“these all look new,” said the man. “are you a Seller, too?”
“no,” said the girl’s sister; the man looked doubtful.
“I found that box yesterday when I was out canoeing,” said the girl.
the man looked up and studied the girl’s face. “I don’t recognize you from the raids, you must be a pretty new recruit.”
“I’m not a recruit,” said the girl. “I’m her sister.”
the man didn’t look convinced, but accepted the tin the woman passed him.
“there are at least four new names here,” said the woman. “and she won’t be happy about this one,” she added, holding up a piece of paper.
“no,” he said sadly. “but I’ll let her know.” he walked toward the tower.
after the woman finished looking through the bags, she eyed the truck. “is that all?”
“yes,” said the girl’s sister. “can we go?”
“no,” said the man, as he returned from the tower. “she’s coming to talk to you.”
“come inside,” said the woman. “you two can have some breakfast while we wait.”
“I don’t want to talk to her,” said the girl's sister anxiously. “I gave everything to you; I’m done.”
“you can pass this up,” said the man, “but she knows about the fire at that Gathering Hut; your mirror trade friends do, too.”
the girl’s sister shivered and pulled her hood up around her face.
“and they’re restless; recruitment numbers are low,” he added, with a glance toward the girl. “but I suppose you two already knew about that.”
avoiding the girl’s gaze, her sister went into the cottage after the woman.
“no,” the guy agreed. “I’m not sure what'll stop them.”
the guy finished smoothing the melted mirror and placed a new one in the pot. the woman quietly left the kitchen. she returned twenty minutes later carrying three pots.
“this way we can work faster,” she said, setting the pots on the stove and placing a mirror in each one. “so, what’s your name?” “Birke,” said the guy, pouring melted mirrors onto the sheet pans. “yours?”
“Indigo,” said the woman. “Birke. that’s a mountain name.”
“yeah,” said Birke, going red.
“no wonder you thought shattering was the best method,” said Indigo, shaking her head. “I’m sure your region has lots of Craftsmen.”
“yeah,” said Birke. “they’re everywhere.”
“you hide your accent well, though,” said Indigo, eyeing him carefully before smoothing the silvery substance.
Indigo considered his words for a moment. “well, you’re not the first hitchhiker I’ve met from the mountains. I’m just glad I found you; the mirror trade around here’s pretty desperate for recruits right now. wandering around like that could get you into trouble.”
“I’m glad, too,” said Birke. “I don’t want anything to do with them. and I won’t be here for long, I’m on my way to Canby.”
Indigo's hand paused over the substance, then she began smoothing it again.
“what're you hoping to find there?” she asked, meeting Birke’s gaze.
“work,” said Birke, before kneeling down and freeing a new batch of mirrors from their wrappings.
a buzzing sound filled the air followed by ringing; Indigo pulled her phone from her pocket and answered it. “hello,” she said. “just melting. yes, he called. two? okay, I want to talk to them. I’ll be right over. thank you.” she stowed her phone away and turned to Birke. “we have to go.”
“what about these?”
“they’re okay, someone else is coming to melt them. but grab your duffle, I don’t know if we’ll be back.”
Birke grabbed his belongings from the living room and they hurried out of the house to the car.
“where are we going?” he asked.
“something important's come up.”
Indigo drove on zig-zagging roads and up and down hills, racing the sun ascending on the horizon. then she took a hairpin turn into the driveway of a hillside cottage, slamming on her brakes to narrowly avoid hitting the truck parked there.
“here we are,” she said, already halfway out of the car. without hesitation, she strode up the hill and knocked on the cottage door.
when Birke caught up to her, the cottage door was opening to reveal a woman with a kind, weathered face.
“Indigo,” the woman said with a smile. “come in.”
“thank you, Dara,” said Indigo. “Dara, this is Birke.”
he shook Dara’s hand and then she ushered them into a cozy kitchen with a fire crackling on the hearth. a girl with long dark hair sat absorbing the warmth holding a nearly full cup of tea. she met Birke’s gaze before looking at Indigo. another person sat with their back to them, their face hidden beneath a hood.
looking closer, Birke saw the hooded person was a girl. she met his gaze but her shoulders began to shake. she looked away and adjusted her hood to better hide her face.
“would you like some tea?” asked Dara.
“yes, thank you,” said Indigo, smiling warmly.
Dara poured two cups of tea and handed them to Birke and Indigo, then pulled up chairs for them. as they sat and sipped their tea, Indigo gently studied the girls. the hooded one hadn’t touched her tea - the cup sat on a small wooden table beside her. the other girl sipped slowly, her eyes glowing with fear.
Dara was offering biscuits and jam when a man with a flushed, tan face entered. he wore an apron splattered with silver and extended a hand to Indigo, who shook it.
“finished most of the crate they brought,” said the man, before noticing Birke. “this must be who Oriel mentioned.”
“yes, Ashton, this is Birke,” said Indigo. “I'm glad the melting's going so well. thank you.”
“you're most welcome,” said Ashton.
"do you need any help?" asked Birke; he had grown weary the anxious pair of girls.
"sure," said Ashton. "follow me."
Birke followed Ashton out of the cottage and up the hill to a tower. when they entered, Ashton whisked an apron from a hook and tossed it to Birke. after passing him a pair of tongs, Ashton led the way into a room with a large vat bubbling with silvery liquid.
“wow,” said Birke. “this is huge!”
“it’s more permanent than what Indigo uses at the safe house,” said Ashton. “can you grab a few mirrors?”
Birke helped Ashton melt the rest of the mirrors from the crate and found the process went much faster and smoother than it had at the A-frame.
“the last one’s over there,” said Ashton, motioning to a shelf under the windows.
Birke retrieved the mirror. it was identical to the ones in the crate except that it was shattered. he looked at its cracked surface and shuddered, then brought it to the vat.
"thanks," said Ashton, placing the mirror in the vat. it quickly dissolved in the bubbling liquid. "and we're done."
they shucked off their splattered aprons and went outside, relishing the cool breeze after the stuffiness of the vat room.
“messy work,” said Ashton, “but it’s better than having them rebuilt and used again."
"yeah," agreed Birke.
"it's nice to see another mountain person working with Indigo," said Ashton. "she's been good to Dara and me."
"I'm just lending a hand for a bit," said Birke. "I'm on my way down to Canby."
“Canby, huh?" said Ashton, frowning. "you struck me as more sensible than that. but, if you’ve made up your mind, who am I to stop you?”
“what’s wrong with Canby?”
Ashton sighed and shook his head. then he walked to the cottage, leaving Birke standing alone.
Birke slowly made his way to the cottage. when he got inside, Ashton was nowhere to be seen. Indigo and Dara were standing in the living room talking quietly and they looked up when Birke entered.
“Birke,” said Indigo. “thank you for helping Ashton and me with the melting. I can give you a ride to the bus station, now, if you’re ready?”
“we made a couple of sandwiches for you,” said Dara, “for the road.”
“oh,” said Birke. “thank you.”
Dara went to get the sandwiches in the kitchen. Birke looked around the living room, then turned to Indigo.
“you don’t have to drive me,” he said to her, “I can always-”
“you’re not hitching there,” Indigo’s tone was sharp.
“you’ve done enough, really.”
“I don’t know much about you, but I know about Canby. I understand you want out of your mountain life but you’re running to somewhere that’s not any better.” Indigo shook her head.
“I need to work,” he said. “I’m not staying in some teeny mountain village to become a Craftsman, just like I won't stay here to join the mirror trade.”
“we could always use your help,” said Indigo, her voice softer.
“oh. well, I, um.” he looked around the room. “thank you,” he said. “but I’ve been looking forward to Canby, the ocean.”
she nodded and Dara entered, carrying a brown paper bag. “I also put a couple of apples in there,” she said. “water and a few biscuits, too.”
“thank you,” he said.
Dara gave him a hug and then he went to the car with Indigo.
when they arrived at the bus station, Indigo was inside before Birke had even opened the back door to retrieve his duffle.
she returned, ticket in hand, as he was walking to the station. they sat together on a bench outside to wait.
when the bus arrived, Indigo put her hand on Birke's shoulder briefly. “good luck,” she said.
“thanks,” said Birke.
he boarded the bus and Indigo went to her car. seconds later, she had driven out of sight. the bus pulled onto the road as the sun was setting; he was headed to Canby.
“your little mutt’s out of the way now!” growled the knife-wielding man, edging toward the dog’s owner. “c’mon, Eaton, you lying little shit, tell me where you’ve sold those mirrors! think you’ll cut off the supplies to my House? that your plan?”
“I’m not a thief, Sable. put down the knife.”
“no,” said Sable, inching closer. “you’re worse than a thief, you're a survivor. a liability. I should’ve kept you in the shadows, but I was nice, gave you a chance, I let you Sell! and what appreciation do I get?” “I’ll be a Gatherer again, then, or a Craft-”
“and leave me to clean up your mess! you’ve attracted the Melters attention,” said Sable. “just because we haven’t found the crates doesn’t mean they’re not scrap silver in her vats! worthless!”
Sable lunged toward Eaton, who side-stepped him. Sable stumbled into a bench and his knife clattered to the floor. Eaton grabbed Sable by the arm and pinned him to the wall, but he writhed in Eaton’s grip and sent a fist into Eaton’s stomach. Sable slithered loose and disappeared through the double doors.
coughing, Eaton hurried to where his dog lay. he kneeled down, keeping the entrance in view. his dog was still breathing but remained unconscious.
“you always were a sucker for the injured.”
Eaton spun and stood up.
Sable stood leering, half-hidden by the wall, and spat, “bandaging up those traitors!”
“if you mean Dara and Oriel-”
“yes,” he hissed, eyes ablaze, “who else? I had ‘em a year before they hobbled off to join Indigo. Ash, too. all because that’s where they thought you’d gone!” he laughed. “just couldn’t live with themselves!”
Eaton listened to his dog’s breathing as Sable crept into the room. after taking a few steps forward, he came to a stop between his dog and Sable.
“but I found you eventually, didn’t I?” Sable smirked. “in a decrepit little shack by the Canby docks, with that mutt.”
Eaton took a step closer to Sable. the light caught something silver in Sable’s hand. “what’s that?” he asked.
“oh, you noticed,” said Sable with a grin, holding up a glob of melted silver; murky yellow rivulets ran from it down his arm and pooled on the floor.
“Sable, you know that’s unsafe,” said Eaton, taking a step back.
“it’s only a tiny one,” said Sable, with mock reassurance. “you should’ve seen how many took down the factory!” he laughed, slipping in a murky pool.
Eaton stepped into an aisle to get clear of the liquid, keeping an eye on his dog, and spotted Sable’s knife on the floor nearby. he snatched it up; Sable was distracted steadying himself.
Eaton leaned over a bench and took the discarded mirror.
“it’s too late to try that again,” said Sable, “I’m done with your gimmicks.”
Eaton stepped closer to Sable. “but I thought you wanted me to tell you where I hid the stolen crates?”
Sable’s cloudy yellow eyes brightened.
Eaton stepped closer and Sable’s eyes darkened.
“your father was a liar, too,” said Sable, “said he wouldn’t tell Indigo who stole the Crafting herbs, but she still found out.”
“my dad never ratted out you or your father!”
“but he kept his job, didn’t he!” spat Sable, leering close. “and now his son’s trying to take away mine!”
“put that down,” said Eaton, his voice shaking with anger. “it’s dangerous!”
“you’ll betray me, Eaton, because you’re just like your father!” Sable’s eyes were lost in haze, his voice grew fiercer. “well, I’m like mine!”
Sable drew a black dagger from his pocket and pointed it at the glob.
Eaton held the mirror tight, made three slashes on its reflective surface and lobbed it into the entryway; the mangled ball of silver in Sable’s hand vibrated.
Sable’s eyes went wide as the ball rose above his hand; its dripping yellow fluid wrapped around his arm and pulled him through the main doors.
Eaton scooped up his dog from the bench and bolted to the back of the building. when he was almost to the back wall, a bang reverberated through the air and he fell to the ground.
coughing, Eaton opened his eyes. his dog was breathing in his arms, eyes still closed. silver dust hung in the air and he peered through the haze. the double doors had been torn off their hinges and lay in pieces. the foyer had disintegrated - he could see through to the forest. everywhere debris was splattered with molten silver.
Eaton crept toward the blasted out entryway, stopping short when he heard something stir.
a misty shape of Sable rose from the wreckage, then dispersed in a silver rain; Sable was gone.
Eaton shook his head as vivid images flooded in; seven years before, he was out gathering herbs and saw an identical silver mist in the valley below. at first he’d thought it was fog, but when it dissipated there was only rubble - the factory’s foundation, in ruins.
his sigh brought him back to present. as he picked his way to his truck he spotted the remnants of the crates he’d brought; murky yellow oozed from them; Sable’s silver orb had fused with the the mirrors and rendered them useless.
a layer of dust covered his truck. wiping his windows clean, he was relieved to see the truck wasn’t damaged by the blast.
after starting the truck, he looked at his sleeping dog on the seat beside him. the dog’s chest rose and fell, the sound of his breathing filled the cab, but he didn’t wake.
a cloud of silver swirled into the sky. it wouldn’t be long before people came to disappear or worse, investigate. with a sigh, Eaton put the truck in reverse. he glanced in the rearview mirror and was shocked at the sight that met him; lines ran across his face, around his ears and down his neck. some had turned from white to silver. repulsed, he looked away.
Eaton turned off the main road at the first tote road he reached, grateful his truck could easily maneuver the overgrown trail. at a stream he parked the truck and climbed down the embankment. after splashing water on his face he took deep breaths, then drank greedily with cupped hands. silver shone through the water on his arms; all his lines had turned silver. though he knew the lines may not fade, he had at least escaped with his life.
he checked his dog was breathing, then walked a short way into the forest. in the fading light he searched in a clearing for mint, assorted herbs and clover.
at the stream, he ground the ingredients, mixed them with mud, then spread the paste on a piece of dry bark. he brought his dog down to the stream and gently laid him on the grass. after lathering the paste in his hands, he massaged it into the dog’s still body.
when he was finished, in an attempt at patience, he chewed some mint and watched the sun sinking beneath the trees.
after countless moments, the dog’s eyes opened. “Miki,” breathed Eaton.
the girl sat sipping her tea, quietly observing the woman, Indigo, as she studied her and her sister. Indigo had white lines on her face like the girl’s sister, but they didn’t appear to bother her as she made no effort to cover them up. the young guy, Birke, who had come with Indigo, had left to melt mirrors with Ashton, and Dara had left the kitchen shortly thereafter. when Indigo had asked their names, the girl’s sister had burrowed deeper into her hood and kept silent. though her sister hadn’t touched the biscuits Dara had offered, the girl had and she thought they were delicious. “you two helped us out a great deal when you brought those mirrors to melt,” Indigo said to the sisters, “not to mention the Hut.” she set the tin from the Gathering Hut on the table then took out the pieces of paper and arranged them around it. “I know this one’s yours,” said Indigo to the girl’s sister, holding up one of the papers covered in incomprehensible symbols. “but I'm curious, which one belongs to you?” she asked the girl.
“I don’t know what these mean,” the girl answered. “I’ve never seen this language before.” then she turned to her sister. “this one’s yours?”
“but Dara said they were names and this isn’t your n-”
“never mind,” said her sister. “they’re not important now.”
“have you met any of these people?” said Indigo, her gaze locked on the girl’s sister.
“if you’re trying to ask me where they are, I don’t know,” came a fierce voice from beneath the hood. “and I don’t care, either; we’re not friends, we were coworkers.”
“seems to be the way things go in the trade,” said Indigo with a small smile. “even so, did you know of anyone else who was getting fed up with the work and wanted out?”
“no. well, nobody except that new Seller who seems to have a death wish.”
“actually, he’s far from a new recruit, he was born into the trade.”
“then he’s a pretty slow learner.”
“have you met him?”
“just once, in passing at a Crafting Shop raid. why? you looking for him?”
“he doesn’t want to be found,” said Indigo, pushing one of the papers toward the girl’s sister, who leaned forward. “but I know this is his and I know the raid you’re talking about; wasn’t that when I first met you?”
the girl’s sister went red.
“well,” said Indigo, “I refuse to call you what Sable did. when I know your real name, I’ll call you that.”
“look, all I wanted to do was bring the mirrors and Hut supplies, and then leave.”
“and where will you go?” Indigo asked gently.
“somewhere safe,” the girl's sister replied, and tried to pull her already snug hood tighter.
“well, I can't say how safe you’ll be if you go off on your own. what you learned as a Gatherer is useful beyond crafting those mirrors and that's both an advantage and a curse. just know you’re welcome to stick around and help us if you want.”
“I'll find some pocket where Sable hasn't been. I'll lay low.”
“you could come home,” offered the girl. “I'm sure Mom and Dad would-”
“look,” said Indigo, “it may seem like you're the first of Sable’s people to break ranks, but you’re not. and anyway, I'm the last person to judge. just think about it, okay? my offer from the raid still stands,” she said, her blue eyes tired, then she left.
the girl turned to her sister. “Laurel, she se-”
“shh, she’ll hear you!”
“well, she seems nice, not to mention pretty tired of that Sable guy.”
“look, you don’t know the first thing about this mess,” Laurel groaned. “that's why I was hesitant to have you visit in the first place.”
“if you didn’t want me to come, you should’ve said something!”
“and risk peace with Mom and Dad? no thanks. I thought if you could canoe and hike and whatever, it’d be fine, but then you had to go and find that stupid crate!”
“well I wasn’t the one who started a fire!”
“I had to do something!”
“but now, after coming all this way, you won’t help her! you won’t even tell her your name!”
“my name’s none of her business! I don’t know what more they need!”
Dara entered the kitchen and got out bread and turkey.
“would you like help?” asked the girl.
Dara looked surprised, but gave her a kind smile. “sure, thank you.”
the girl helped Dara make sandwiches, some of which they placed in a paper bag and some they put onto plates.
when they finished, Dara thanked the girl, then went into the living room. the girl sat down at the table with sandwiches for her and Laurel, who had a serious expression on her face.
“what? I wanted to help,” said the girl, taking a bite of her sandwich.
“it’s not that,” said Laurel. “that Birke guy wants to go to Canby; I heard Indigo talking with Ashton while you two were busy.”
“it’s a small port town.” Laurel reluctantly began to eat her sandwich.
“never heard of it.”
“well, you wouldn’t have, seeing as the trade hasn’t spread anywhere near Mom and Dad’s place.”
“oh, so it’s a mirror trade town?”
“it wasn’t always, but in the past few months it’s gotten a lot worse. I’m not surprised they’re upset he wants to go there.”
Ashton came into the kitchen, gave the girls a weak smile, then went out the back door into the forest; Dara and Indigo stayed in the living room talking in low voices. when the girls finished their lunch, they moved closer to the hearth and sat quietly, lost in thought.
the warmth of the fire and the girl's lack of sleep made her drift in and out, only vaguely aware of sounds and her sister beside her.
she awoke to the sound of footsteps and the front door closing. nearby, Dara was tidying the counter, clearly agitated.
“Indigo will be right back,” said Dara.
“what about Birke?” asked Laurel.
“so, he’s going to Canby?”
Dara gave Laurel a startled expression, but then nodded sadly. “we’re not happy, but it’s his choice,” she said. “no sense in trying to force him to do something. if Indigo hadn’t helped, he would’ve just hitchhiked again.” she sighed and sat on a chair near them.
“I’m Laurel, and this is my sister, Sadie.”
they sat by the fire until Ashton arrived with wood for the firewood box. when he was finished filling the box, he joined them.
“this is Laurel and Sadie,” Dara told him.
“glad to know your real name, Laurel,” he said. “those garbled things Sable calls names are a waste. though, Sadie, Indigo told us you weren’t part of the trade after all; sorry for the confusion this morning.”
“thank you,” said Sadie. “I didn’t even know what it was, or that Laurel was in it, before last night.”
“well, you're lucky,” he said with a smile.
they sat in the flickering light of the hearth for a few moments longer, then the girls helped Ashton and Dara make dinner.
Laurel was getting flour from the pantry when her hood slipped off; her cheeks went red and she fumbled with it trying to get it back up.
“may want to keep it off,” said Ashton, “it gets pretty warm in here when we’re baking.”
“and it’s nice being able to see your eyes, dear,” said Dara, carrying the bag of flour to the counter.
“she has our mom’s eyes,” said Sadie.
Laurel kept her hood off as they worked.
when they were setting the table, Indigo returned.
“it looks delicious, Dara!” she said, filling a jug with water for the table.
“thank you. Laurel and Sadie were a big help,” said Dara.
“oh,” said Indigo, smiling at the sisters. “I’m glad.”
after dinner they did the dishes and then sat sipping tea.
a knock came at the door and Ashton went to answer it.
“Oriel!” said Ashton. “come in.”
Ashton led a tall man with grey hair into the kitchen. his face, a network of shimmering lines, was drawn into a serious expression and he looked quite tired.
“Indigo, Dara,” he said, greeting each with a hug. “nice to meet you,” he said to the sisters. he gave Laurel a smile. “you were very brave. in times like these we need more people like you.”
“thank you,” Laurel muttered and went red, but she did not try to put up her hood.
Dara poured Oriel a cup of tea as he sat down.
“it’s very good tea,” said Sadie. “I like the orange, though the mint this morning was good too.”
“so, there are nine now,” Oriel said to Dara, with mock resignation. “you’ve perfected your healing tea in nine varieties, when I could barely manage one!”
as Sadie sipped her tea she realized it had been making her feel better; her arms were no longer achy from canoeing and her blisters had completely healed.
“and she’s experimenting with a tenth,” said Ashton.
“is that right?” said Oriel.
“hey, you got Dad’s brawn,” said Dara, smiling; “I never could wrangle molten silver as well as you.”
“that’s true,” he said. “and you married Alchemist Ash.”
“I dabble from time to time,” said Ashton, smiling modestly. “but that year we worked with Sable, I had gotten so used to the method we used at the factory, I ended up melting an entire batch of mirrors by accident; he was so pissed!”
“actually,” said Oriel, shifting in his seat, “there’s something I need to tell you. wasn’t sure how to…well…Sable died yesterday.”
Indigo set her tea down. Dara went pale. Ashton’s jaw became tense. Laurel’s eyes went wide. Sadie wasn’t sure how to react.
“it happened at the House he ran,” Oriel continued, “with one of those orbs his father taught him how to make.”
“and did he take the whole place with him, like his father?” asked Ashton, his tone bitter. “or was it just him?”
Oriel glanced at Indigo, who met his gaze.
“what is it, Oriel?” she asked.
“well, I was able to have a quick look around before the trade came snooping. there were holes blown in the House and the doors were in pieces. when I saw a delivery of mirrors melted in their crates, I dug around in the office debris until I found this.” he pulled a dented tin from his jacket pocket. “had to pry it open, but it was worth it,” he added, handing the tin to Indigo.
she pulled a notebook from the tin; Dara and Ashton read it with her.
“Eaton was the last to deliver there,” said Ashton. “so much for him not wanting to be found. he’s lucky this book was found by you and not Sable’s friends!”
“after what he did for us, I figured it was only fair,” said Oriel. “but yes, he certainly was lucky. he was the only Seller there yesterday and, although Sable's transaction book doesn’t tell us when he left, the trade could certainly twist it however they wanted if they find out he was on the property.”
“at least we know the boxes aren’t labeled,” said Laurel. “how horrible would it be if each of the boxes had the Seller’s symbol!”
“even without the symbol the trade only needs to look so far to realize which Seller Sable had chosen for that House; he had wanted to keep Eaton close,” said Indigo. “Oriel, was Sable's book the only evidence you found? was Eaton's truck there? or Miki?”
Indigo studied the book intently.
“and the trade didn’t give you any trouble?” asked Dara. “they didn’t see you?”
“no,” said Oriel.
“do you think Eaton wanted out?” asked Laurel. “do you think he would’ve intentionally hurt Sable?”
“I don’t know, to be honest,” said Oriel. “he was born into it, but so were we and we got out. as for intentionality-”
“you may’ve been born into it, but in the past seven years Sable’s changed the game plenty,” said Indigo, irritated. “ which is why, even though he’s gone, the Houses and Huts will keep on working. he built it to withstand splintering; he knew what happened at the factory.”
“it’s not all to their advantage, though,” said Laurel, “aren’t the weak spots easier to find with all the divisions? wouldn’t that make it easier to take them down?”
“hopefully,” said Oriel. “as long as we can contain it before it gets too far out of control; just look at Canby!”
“well, Hollis is there with a pretty capable team,” said Dara, “and Fern’s putting up a good fight in the mountains; that’s something.”
Oriel’s phone rang and he glanced at the caller ID; “Culley,” he said and went into the hall. “hello,” he said. “hey, Culley, what’s up? okay, I’ll be right over. I’ll bring some friends. no problem.” he finished and returned to the kitchen. “Ash, can you come with me? there’s trouble at Culley’s place.”
“sure thing,” said Ashton. he stood, kissed Dara and followed Oriel into the hallway. “you drive, I’ll call the others on the way.”
and then they were gone.
“I’ll call Fern,” said Dara, taking out her phone. then she glanced at the girls. “in the living room there’s a chest full of blankets. you can take the spare room, make yourself comfortable,” she said, then went outside.
“that leaves Hollis,” said Indigo, looking worried. “help yourselves to more tea.” then she too left the house.
when Sadie and Laurel finished making up the guest room bed, Laurel groaned about being too warm. she shucked off her sweatshirt and sprawled onto the bed. the lines on her ears and face, as well as those wrapping the parts of her arms and neck her t-shirt left exposed, were quite visible. Sadie flopped beside her.
“why’d you try to disappear?” asked Sadie.
Laurel sighed. “it just was getting to be too much,” she said. “it’d been getting worse ever since your birthday.”
“my birthday was months ago.”
“yeah, and you turned eighteen. Sable may not have had the principles Indigo does when it comes to who can disappear, but he was careful to only recruit adults - less messy that way. and he didn’t recruit just anybody, he wanted loyal people. even…family.”
“he wanted me?”
“he would’ve if he’d known about you. that’s why I didn’t want you to come, why I tried to distance myself.”
“oh,” Sadie turned away. “then I’m sorry.”
“no, I didn’t mean...” Laurel sat up. “I wanted to be with you, but like old times, like our treasure hunts when we were kids.”
Sadie turned toward Laurel. “but you didn’t have those lines when you picked me up from the airport, you only had them after I went canoeing.”
“I had the mirror in the truck and, after I dropped you off, the pressure got worse. my plan had been to keep my distance and make sure you were safe in case any trade people showed up while you were canoeing, then, when you were done I’d go pick you up.” Laurel pulled her sweatshirt onto her lap. ”but then I got thinking about everything that had happened between us, everything Sable wanted, and thought ‘maybe if I disappear…’ so I tried, but then it became unbearable and I had to let go.” she twisted the drawstrings of her hood as she spoke. “I only wanted to leave the trade stuff here and be done with it and never have you know, but it’s gone too far now. I’m sorry I ever got involved. I’m sorry for everything.” tears slid from Laurel’s eyes over the lines on her face and heavy droplets fell onto her sweatshirt.
“Laurel,” said Sadie in a cracking voice. warm tears filled her eyes as she wrapped her arms around her sister, who didn’t pull away. “just because you’re older doesn’t mean you have to be strong all the time.”
Birke yawned and peered out his window; the bus had pulled up at a gas station. a small placard attached to the building denoted its status as a bus stop. “Canby!” announced the driver. venturing down the main street, Birke passed darkened storefronts and restaurants; the sun had barely risen above the horizon so the docks, with departing working boats, were the liveliest part of town. he grabbed an apple from his backpack to ease his hunger and wandered down the hill toward the docks.
at the waterfront, he watched fisherman loading their boats and directing their helpers. birds called and waves splashed. he smiled; it was so different from his village.
the horizon was scattered with islands and a headland rose up in the southeast. pleasure boats dotted the bay to Birke’s right and a particularly stately home stood on a hill at the edge of the forest. in the northeast, working boats motored away from Canby where the horizon opened wider. the northeastern shore was markedly untamed; shacks in varying states of disrepair gave way to forest. a few shacks had dinghies or small patches of green space between them and the sea, but most were only separated from the crashing waves by large chunks of granite and concrete, some with the rebar still poking out. inland from the shacks was a rectangular concrete crater - a foundation overgrown with weeds, beyond which was a neat line of narrow houses.
noticing an increase of passersby, Birke looked up the hill. the shops had opened and the main street was bustling with people and cars.
as he began toward the main street, he heard a scuffle behind a tower of fishing traps. stepping closer, he saw two burly men with their backs to him. a third man wound his foot back, then drove it into the stomach of a fourth man lying on the ground. “where’s our mirror?” the thug demanded, sending another kick into the man’s stomach.
the man’s face was contorted in pain as he shook his head. “p-please, st-” he coughed. he raised his arms, which were scratched and covered in dirt and blood. “p-pl-” he tried, and waved meekly.
“we know you took it!” said one of the burly men, kneeling down. he grabbed the man’s shirt and lifted his head off the ground; the man's eyes filled with fear. the thug pulled a mirror from his coat and leaned close. “if you wanted to disappear, we would’ve helped,” he said, thrusting the mirror in front of the man's face.
the man went misty as the thugs held him down.
“where is it?” the thug sneered, after tearing the mirror away.
“sh-shattered,” said the man. sweat glistened on his face. “in th-the bay.”
“nope. we recovered that one,” said the thug and forced the mirror in front of the man; when he began to mist, the thug released it.
“no, I-” the man sputtered.
Birke stowed his bags beneath a row of shrubs, then stepped into view of the thugs.
the closest thug took a step toward Birke and smiled. “what, you next?”
“leave the man alone,” said Birke calmly.
the thug laughed. “you his boyfriend?”
“could be. just leave him alone.”
the thug stepped closer as the mirror flashed; the man on the ground began to fade to mist. then the thug came at Birke, who punched him, connecting with his jaw. the thug staggered back. another thug moved forward angrily.
Birke blocked a blow from the second thug and punched him in the stomach. the thug doubled over. the thug with the mirror dropped it, stunned at the sight of his two comrades coughing on the ground, and lunged at Birke’s legs. Birke sidestepped the thug, who crashed to the dirt.
the trio, after attempting to rally, hobbled away, injured and swearing.
Birke helped the man sit up, then he retrieved his bags from the bushes. he made sure to stow the thugs' discarded mirror deep in his duffle. he stood and quietly observed the man who sat with his eyes closed, taking deep breaths and holding his side in pain. a black eye was visible through the network of lines on his face.
Birke rejoined the man and helped him stand.
“you’ll make enemies like that,” said the man in a hoarse voice, coughing from the exertion. “but thank you.”
“is there somewhere you can rest?” asked Birke.
“I’ll show you.”
the man led Birke through a gated section of the docks to a stately green sailboat with “Vireo” painted on its hull.
“looks like a broken rib,” said Birke, once the man was settled on a cushioned bench in Vireo’s cabin.
though he couldn’t fix the rib, he tended to the injuries he could. since he wasn’t sure how sore the man’s jaw would be after the thug’s treatment, he made soup and heated up some of the tea he had brought with him.
“I can pay you, for helping, and for the tea,” said the man after they had eaten.
“thank you, but it’s okay.”
“you’re very kind,” said the man. he looked over his arms and legs. “huh, thought I had more cuts and bruises than this.”
“you did,” said Birke. the man gave him a questioning look. “my name’s Birke.”
“ah, that’s why you’re good with your fists,” said the man knowingly. “I’m Calum. I’m from Adney Island. my neighbour there was also from the mountains, but his fists landed him in jail. unlike you, he didn’t mind the trade. he never mastered the tea though, never had much time between stints in prison.”
“my dad taught me the tea, tried to teach me the trade too. growing up in a town like that, I had to be strong if I wanted to disagree.”
“the trade wasn't officially welcomed in Adney, but it made frequent visits. I tried to stay neutral.”
“by stealing their mirrors?”
Calum smiled. “well, I haven't officially chosen a side, after all. but if a few mirrors move from a trade's boat onto my boat, or into a melter's pocket...” he shrugged.
“so, you're some kind of pirate?”
“let's just say nobody else in Canby would’ve been willing to do what you did.” Calum took a sip of tea. “I told you, you’ll make enemies that way. if I were you, with a fresh start here, I’d try to stay out of the trade’s way. get a quiet job. as for hotels, there’s a place on Second that is pro-melter, not that they advertise it, but they have enough muscle to stay in business.”
Birke made another pot of tea before leaving. as he set the tea in front of Calum, he noticed a photograph of five people standing on the dock in front of Vireo; Calum followed his gaze.
“that’s my sister with her husband, my brother's in the centre, then me and the neighbour I told you about.”
“you two were friends?”
“he helped me build Vireo, named it after a bird,” said Calum. “but it was hard to keep anything serious going, with him always in and out of prison. last I knew he’d moved back to the mountains.”
“it’s fine.” Calum looked at the photo. “that was five years ago now,” he pointed to his sister’s small bump, “they also have a three-year-old.”
“I’ll check out that hotel you mentioned,” said Birke as he left, “but you try to stay out of trouble too. okay?”
“I’m not making any promises.”
Birke easily found the hotel Calum suggested. from his room, he could see Vireo; all looked well.
after getting settled in, he walked up the hill to explore the main street.
a help wanted sign caught his eye so he entered the shop. seeds, dried berries and herbs filled the shelves. between two vases, a poster was tacked to the wall: “strengthen the future, join the trade!”
“interested?” said the shop owner. she smiled kindly, her eyes warm behind her glasses. “it really is the way of the future,” she added. “and we need all kinds; just yesterday a fisherman joined up, he’ll be a really big help because everyday he sees so many people.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Birke, as the woman leaned uncomfortably close.
“well, don’t take too long.” she smiled tightly.
Birke nodded and slipped from the store.
as he attempted to breathe in the fresh air, he was distracted by yelling. he noticed the source of commotion at once; at the bakery across the way, the baker was pushing two men in silver splattered overalls out onto the street.
“serves them right, bunch of thieves,” muttered a woman beside Birke as she went into the store he had just exited.
the pair of melters hurried up the main street and Birke, keeping his distance, followed. when they turned onto a side street, he crossed the street in pursuit. he caught up with them near a park.
“hey,” he said.
they spun toward him, their faces anxious and drawn.
“look, we don’t want any trouble,” said one melter, while both of them backed onto the grass.
“no, I-” but the melters were already sprinting across the park. he noticed one had a slight limp.
after the park, the street became residential, so Birke turned back toward the main street. nearing the corner, he passed a gallery. there was a sign in the window announcing a sale with increasing percentages crossed out, stopping at eighty.
through the window, Birke could see the owner wrapping artwork in paper. she was surrounded by a jungle of cardboard boxes.
Birke entered and the owner looked up. “welcome to Strahan Bay Gallery,” she said, motioning to a shelf by the window. “those are the last of the sale items.”
as Birke began looking over the artwork, a teenage boy entered.
“Theo,” said the owner brightly, “good timing.” she picked up a box from the counter and passed it to Theo. “you do good work, so don’t let this discourage you, okay?”
"thanks," Theo murmured, then he left.
Birke found a sturdy wallet in the sale items. he brought it to the owner and retrieved money from his battered wallet.
“thank you,” said the owner, accepting his payment. then, noticing his old wallet, “you don’t often see that material outside of the mountains, pretty durable stuff.”
“yeah, but it’s time for a new one.” he looked around the room. “I’m guessing your closing sale coinciding with the trade influx isn’t a coincidence?”
“no,” she answered, taping up a box and labelling it with the artist’s name. “when the cannery was still here and people were more optimistic it was much better.”
the door opened and a teenage girl entered.
“Jayne,” said the owner, handing the girl a box. “remember what Hollis said, and stick with it.”
“I will,” said Jayne, and gave the owner a hug. “thank you.”
when Jayne had gone, the owner’s gaze scanned the room for anything not boxed up.
“have they all taken it that well? the artists?”
“no.” she shook her head. “some took it a lot worse. what frustrates me is that its losses like this that give the trade more power; without places like this, people don’t get to see alternatives.”
“yeah,” agreed Birke. he glimpsed another artist, a woman with grey hair, coming into the gallery. “good luck,” he said to the owner, “and thanks for the wallet.”
on the main street he passed a butcher’s shop, a seamstress' shop and a bookstore. then he reached a hardware store with a hiring sign in the window.
a stocky man greeted Birke pleasantly and the conversation flowed easily. when the owner emerged from an aisle and walked closer to greet Birke, his enthusiasm faltered as his gaze went to Birke’s shoe. the employee’s gaze followed and he frowned as well.
“no,” said the owner. “my customers know where I stand. I can’t hire you.”
Birke left, unsettled, and glanced at the splatter of silver on his shoe. he thought he had been careful while melting with Ashton, so he hadn’t given a second thought about his shoes.
“Birke!” a thin, smiling man approached. “didn’t think I’d see you around here!” he said. “heard you left town after-”
“no need to be so formal, Al’s fine. so, you sticking around? we could always use more help.” he smiled. “there are two Houses now, which keep us busy. or, if you want, you can help out Crafting. you were always good with metal, right?”
“no,” said Birke, hoping his shoe would go unnoticed. “it always melted.”
“well, we don’t want that happening!” another smile. “so, you interested? we’ve got a few people from our village helping, remember-”
“thanks, Al. but not right now.”
“sure, that’s cool. if you ever change your mind, the offer’s always open.” he patted Birke’s shoulder, and left with a wave.
frustrated, Birke headed back to his hotel.
while waiting at a crosswalk, two girls joined him.
“I’m sure they’ll fade, Nan,” said the other, handing her a tissue.
Birke glanced over - Nan’s eyes were red and puffy and her face was covered in white lines.
“what if you tell your mom?” offered Nan’s friend. “I’m sure she’ll be able to help.”
the signal switched to walk.
“she won’t understand,” said Nan as they crossed. “I even went to the one by the old cannery, so she wouldn’t notice.”
when they reached the other side, the girls and Birke went in opposite directions.
back in his hotel room, Birke worked to remove the silver stain on his shoe. his thoughts kept wandering to Nan; he hoped her mother would understand. he also wondered how his neighbour from the village was doing, almost thirteen now. in his frustration he didn't realize his efforts had removed the silver and were beginning to wear away the shoe itself; he stopped, set the shoe aside, then busied himself with tidying the uncluttered space.
after supper at his hotel, Birke grew restless. catching a glimpse of the sunset, he ventured outside to observe it better. at a small park he found an unobstructed view of Canby's westerly edge; the forest gave way to farmers' fields and the stream that connected the town to points inland. parallel to the stream ran the road he had bused in on that morning and he realized he had left Indigo twenty-four hours before.
when he reached the end of the street, tongues of flame came into view. worried, he hurried forward. beyond a stand of trees, the full scene was visible; on a clear patch of concrete in the overgrown foundation was a bonfire. Birke caught his breath and noticed a rusted out sign with weeds curling through the holes that read: “Ne r Ca n ry”
edging down a makeshift stairway at the edge of the foundation, Birke studied the figure facing the bonfire; the person was tossing rectangular objects onto the flames and sparks flew skyward with each additional piece of fuel.
when Birke reached the fire, he noticed paintings scattered all around its base. the figure, upon hearing footsteps, turned toward him.
“Theo,” said Birke, recognizing him from the gallery. “your art!”
“it’s useless. nobody in this town gives a shit. where better to set it aflame than here?” Theo leaned forward to pick up another piece, but Birke snagged it first.
“where’s this lake?” asked Birke. “it’s beautiful.”
“it’s Avemyr,” said Theo, taking a step toward another painting, “near where I grew up.”
Birke reached the painting and tucked it safely with the first.
“look,” snapped Theo, “this is my art.” he kicked a painting into the fire. “I'll do whatever I please with it, got that?” he stomped on another piece before tossing it into the flames. “see, at least now it’s useful, it’s keeping people warm.” he motioned to the foundation, unaware of, or simply ignoring, the absence of anyone but himself and Birke.
Birke glanced at the second painting, an abstract in brilliant blues and greens with gold accents. Theo used Birke’s distraction to his advantage and threw another piece onto the flames.
“I’ll buy them,” said Birke, swiping a third canvas, a sunrise, from the concrete.
“sure you will,” said Theo, attempting to reclaim the artwork in Birke’s arms. “just give me my kindling.”
“no, I’m serious.” Birke backed away and held the pieces more firmly.
Theo circled the bonfire for more paintings, but came up empty. “fine, have ‘em.”
he accepted the cash Birke handed him and had nothing nasty to say about the amount. after pocketing the money, he began breaking up a discarded wooden crate.
“you’re a good painter, Theo,” said Birke.
“you got that line from her.”
“just because this place doesn’t see it, doesn’t mean you’re finished.”
“whatever. thanks for the money, okay.” his words were accented by an resounding crash as the crate split apart.
Theo tossed the crate onto the bonfire and ambled off in search of another. not wanting to linger in case the foundation yielded no further kindling, Birke left.
halfway to his hotel, he heard people muttering in undertones in a dim alleyway.
“are you sure he’s gone?” one woman said.
“yeah,” said a young male voice. “there was a huge explosion and everything. one of the higher-ups arrived at the House and it was all demolished.”
Birke stopped in the shadows to listen.
“do they know what happened?” asked a voice he recognized as Al’s.
“maybe, but they’re not likely to tell us, are they?” said the woman.
“it’s just, if Sable’s gone, then, who’s in charge?” asked the young guy.
“hell if I know,” said Al. Birke snuck away quietly.
he knew how much Sable had tried to change the trade and he wasn’t sure how many alterations would remain with him gone. but he also knew what the trade looked like when allowed to manifest in an isolated mountain enclave. he feared for Canby, especially its youth, and its increasingly uncertain future.
as the sun rose over the stream and Eaton’s truck, it illuminated the fog blanketing the water. Eaton awoke and glanced at Miki resting on the backseat. the dog’s chest rose and fell, just as it had each time Eaton had checked throughout his fitful sleep. he breathed a sigh of relief and went to open the truck door, but something in the fog stopped him. figures were moving on the edge of the stream. Eaton ducked as low as he could and peered over the dashboard. as he studied the figures, he noticed they were carrying something between them. they went closer to the stream and disappeared into the fog. Eaton tensed up and was peering through the blinding white to get a better glimpse, when a vivid shape came out of the fog; the two men were paddling a canoe along the stream, absorbed in conversation with one another. the fog engulfed them and their voices died away.
taking deep breaths, Eaton waited a few moments longer, then eased himself from the truck.
farther along the tote road, he found a grey truck. he had heard from Sable of a boat launch in the area, but hadn’t given it much thought until that moment. the section of tote road that connected to the main road had been filled in with gravel to make access easier.
at the stream, he splashed water on his face in an attempt to wake up. when he found his thoughts wandering back to the night before, he turned to leave.
his gaze fell on a shape in the ferns. “no,” he said, hurrying forward. “no, no, no.”
glancing anxiously about, he scooped up the crate.
“good boy,” he managed, as Miki looked up when he slid the crate under the backseat. he wrapped a wool blanket around it to hide it from curious eyes.
his heart was pounding as he drove toward the main road. the fifty-three in black paint, definitely one of his crates. his nerves had calmed little when he reached his cabin. a boat launch, where anyone could have picked it up; a kid…his mind wandered to the little girl who had disappeared at the Grey House. his breathing had only just become even when his fridge turned on and he yelped; Miki looked at him groggily from the couch.
“sorry, boy,” said Eaton. “the paste is almost ready. just relax.”
Miki closed his eyes and sunk into the couch cushions.
“relax,” Eaton repeated quietly, more to himself than Miki.
later that evening, Eaton was still finding it difficult to relax; Miki had made very little progress despite regular application of the paste. on top of that, the paste ingredients were depleting rapidly. though he knew what he had to do, he put it off for another hour in hopes that Miki’s condition would somehow improve.
after an hour, Miki’s condition had not improved and certain essential paste ingredients had been used up entirely.
Eaton stowed a container in his backpack, then checked his wallet out of habit; the black card with rounded corners was still there. the size of his driver’s licence but with no photo, no name, just a line of silver symbols etched into its surface. it was seven years old but looked brand-new; simple plastic or paper hadn’t been good enough for Sable.
he nuzzled Miki’s fur and whispered: “I’ll be back soon, boy,” then slipped out of his cabin.
after walking over an hour, Eaton arrived at his goal; beyond the beam of his flashlight, dark and deserted, lay a garden. he stepped cautiously into the garden and kept an eye on a stand of trees in the distance. hidden from view of the garden behind the trees sat a house, the owners of which he knew would not think favourably of his presence.
his skilled hands moved quickly over the plants and his container was soon full. tucking it away in his backpack, he paused - voices were approaching the garden.
he slunk toward the forest and had only just reached it when a commanding male voice said: “c’mon, we don’t have all fucking night. if you hadn’t spilled the supply, we wouldn’t have to do this at all.”
“leave her alone,” said a young man’s voice.
three figures came into view, making a beeline for the Gathering Hut at the garden’s edge. from the towering figure in the centre, the booming voice spoke again.
“don’t you start. I’ve listened to your whining long enough.” the figure shoved the young man forward. “open the door.”
“I don’t have a key,” said the young man.
“check the stone! don’t you remember anything?”
Eaton knew what the young man would find - the new owners made sure to keep the Hut locked. the man was apparently not aware of this and Eaton wondered if he had even noticed the house farther down the gravel lane; it was hard to miss when coming to the garden by vehicle, which is why Eaton always walked. as the man argued with the younger pair, Eaton snuck around the edge of the garden towards the path that would take him back to his cabin.
a loud crack split the air; the man had forced the younger guy to kick open the door.
“took ya long enough,” growled the man as he went inside and immediately roared with displeasure. “empty!” the sound of cracking wood echoed loudly around the garden; Eaton saw a light flicker on in the direction of the house.
the pair huddled outside the Hut as the man's rage continued within. by the light that shone from the pair’s flashlights, Eaton could make out their faces. the young woman cowered beside the young man who said: “it’s alright.”
“like hell it’s alright!” the man suddenly filled the doorway. with a lurch in his stomach, Eaton recognized him as a trade member from Canby, one he wouldn’t have thought fit to be a recruiter.
“we’ll find another Hut,” said the young man, his voice firm as he met the recruiter’s gaze.
“you think these places just appear out of thin air? there’s precious few of ‘em left, ‘specially after that other one got torched!” the recruiter kicked the doorframe. “lousy recruits.” he stormed away.
the pair muttered quietly to one another in the man's brief absence.
“you two want another chance to screw up?” the recruiter asked, striding into view. he thrust pails into their hands. “I expect you remember what they looked like, before they were dumped out and ruined?” the pair nodded. “good, now scram! and don’t come back until those are full!”
the recruits scampered away to the far side of the garden.
“finally,” groaned the recruiter as he leaned against the wall of the Hut. flame came to life and he lit his cigarette, inhaling deeply.
Eaton wanted to get back to Miki soon; he knew how long filling those pails would take - he’d done it for Sable - and Miki didn’t have that kind of time. hoping his plan would work, he stepped out of the forest and walked confidently toward the recruiter.
“ho!” said the recruiter.
Eaton pulled out his wallet and passed him the black card. the man took a thoughtful drag as he studied it.
“nice,” he said, handing it back. “you local?”
“no,” lied Eaton, “I’m just passing through. an old friend told me about this place, thought I’d check it out. I wanted to craft a few on the road to restock the one’s I’ve been selling.”
“always good to have a healthy supply,” said the recruiter respectfully.
Eaton found the man just as two-faced as he had been in Canby, not that they had known one another; in Canby, Eaton had been a dishwasher at a trade-frequented pub, one of his three jobs. scrubbing away behind the scenes, he’d only seen the recruiter when he had to help haul his unconscious body into a waiting trade car out back so he could be quietly driven away after a not-so-discreet drunken brawl.
walking to the garden and kneeling in the closest row, Eaton picked some Crafting herbs.
the recruiter joined him. “so, you’re travelling?” he asked, after exhaling a cloud of smoke.
“I’ve done some myself, mostly to and from the coast, Canby runs,” he sighed. “I know you’re busy, but could you do with a couple’a recruits? they turned eighteen six months ago, twins. joined up about three months back.”
Eaton picked more herbs, moving into the next row, to buy himself time. he looked over to where the twins were filling their pails.
“I know it’s not ideal,” the recruiter continued nervously, “and maybe not even proper, for me to ask a senior member.”
“do you doubt their training?” asked Eaton.
“I’ve done all I can to prepare them for the Grey House, but they still lack finesse. I think Leader would rather have - that he deserves - a pair with more natural talent. I’m sure even in your travels you’ve heard of the light-fingered Seller he has there and the trouble it’s caused this area?”
“yes,” said Eaton bitterly, thinking of Sable's accusations. “I’ve heard.” he grew nervous; there was no Grey House. no Leader. he hastily stowed the Crafting herbs in the front pocket of his backpack and stood up. “well, that should be the last of them,” he said, putting his bag on his shoulders and retrieving his flashlight.
the recruiter’s dark eyes widened in alarm.
“I can pay you to take them,” he said, following Eaton to the garden’s edge. desperation edged his voice. “I’ll tell Leader they weren’t ready - that they got sent to a superior for retraining.”
footsteps approached them and the recruiter cleared his throat. his tone was cold when he spoke to the twins.
“done, already? I find that pretty damn hard to believe.”
the recruiter snatched the young woman’s pail from her hand, spilling some herbs in the process. pulling her arm away, she tucked it hastily into her sweater. Eaton glimpsed her radiant blue eyes before she averted her gaze to the ground. she winced as the recruiter snarled: “barely half full.”
the recruiter then examined the pail of the young man, who locked his blue eyes onto the recruiter and accepted the criticism without flinching.
when the recruiter had finished, the young man turned his piercing gaze onto Eaton.
“who are you?” asked the young man.
there was fear in the recruiter’s eyes and voice as he said: “he’s a trade member, a superior, he deserves our respect.”
“who are you?” the young man repeated, not sparing a glance at the recruiter.
“I’ll be taking over your training,” said Eaton, and the young man looked stunned.
the young woman recoiled as if Eaton had given her a bruise to join those he had seen on her arms before she whisked them out of sight; her brother’s shown vividly on his arms, the sleeves of his sweatshirt still rolled up from picking herbs. Eaton thought there might be one on his cheek, but it was hard to tell in the darkness. their abuser, the recruiter, looked relieved.
“go get your things,” he said gratefully, lighting another cigarette. “you’re with him now.”
“I thought we were going to a House,” asked the young man, a hint of fear in his voice.
“yes, well, things change,” said the recruiter, shooing them away. “go!”
the twins hurried off.
“thank you,” said the recruiter as they disappeared.
“no trouble,” said Eaton, wondering if that would be true. he refused the money the recruiter was trying to cram into his fist. “will you send Leader my regards? I won’t be in town long.”
“of course, anything,” said the recruiter.
after the twins returned, the recruiter was gone in a haze of smoke. the twins followed Eaton in the opposite direction. they had travelled down the path for not even five minutes when muffled shouts could be heard coming from the garden. he urged the twins on ahead of him and then he glanced back; red and blue flashing lights could be seen through the trees.
Eaton was grateful when his cabin came into view. he ushered the twins inside. Miki looked up sleepily from the couch and Eaton hurried over to check on him.
“what are your names?” he asked the twins.
the twins stood just inside the door and looked silently around the long narrow room - dining room, kitchenette and living room combined.
Eaton stood, retrieved the herbs from his backpack and gathered up the mortar and pestle from beside the sink.
“you can sit, if you’d like,” he said, motioning to the small dining table.
the twins exchanged glances and continued to hover by the door.
they watched him as he mixed Miki’s paste; as he stoked the fire; as he sat gingerly on the couch beside Miki and massaged the paste into his fur.
when he was rinsing out the paste bowl at the sink, two black cards with silver symbols were silently placed on the counter. though not what Eaton had intended, he washed his hands and then picked them up. he recognized the newer format, an extra line of etchings beneath the first, and was relieved to see the recruiter was telling the truth - they were indeed of age. he handed them back.
in the warm light of the cabin, he could see the twins more clearly. they both had curly brown hair, though the young man’s went to his shoulders and the young woman’s went partway down her back. each of them also had a few bruises on their faces in various stages of healing.
“and what are your given names, the ones you were born with?”
“no other recruiter’s asked us,” said the young man, returning to defiance in his fear, “so why d’you care?”
“because, back when this organization was started, we learned people’s names. call me old-fashioned.”
“what’s yours, then?” asked the young man.
“Eaton.” saying it felt strange; it had been over three years since anyone had asked.
“Zev,” said the young man.
“Kolina,” said the young woman, blushing.
“and this is Miki,” said Eaton, motioning toward the couch where Miki slept. he tried to push away the memories that kept threatening to surface; the factory, Canby, the Grey House, her. “are you hungry?” he asked.
Zev and Kolina exchanged anxious glances.
Eaton got out bread, peanut butter, jam and milk, cups, plates and silverware, and set them on the table.
the twins crept to the table and sat down.
“eat your fill,” he said, and went to locate sheets in the armoire; they were his first guests.
when the beds in the loft were made, Eaton went to check on Miki. he had only made it halfway to the couch when there was a knock on the door.
with a glance outside, his stomach turned unpleasantly.
“you two eat as much as you want,” he said kindly to the twins, though they jumped. “I’ll just be a moment.” he hoped his voice concealed the nervousness he felt. “the bathroom’s just down the hall and, if you get tired, everything’s ready for you in the loft.”
when he could stall no longer, he slipped outside and shut the door.
Eaton did not look at the men standing in his dooryard, especially not at the tall muscular man with grey hair who was leaning against his truck.
“quite a racket you guys caused at that old trade garden,” said Ashton’s familiar voice as he approached; Oriel remained at Eaton’s truck. “the owners called us to put an end to your little party.”
“I was only there for Miki, he got injured,” said Eaton, studying the gravel at his feet.
“I’m not surprised, with that explosion at the Grey House!” exclaimed Ashton.
“you know about that?” asked Eaton, meeting Ashton’s gaze. he looked away from the tan, weathered face and into the darkness, wondering if Oriel and Ashton had brought other Melters.
“just ‘cuz that lowlife recruiter doesn’t have a clue Sable’s gone, doesn’t mean we’re oblivious,” said Ashton. “though it’s obvious just looking at you that something happened - your face, neck, arms, say it all. how many did you Craft to get the lines? before they turned silver and, well, rather permanent, I mean.”
“the House was an accident, self-defence,” said Eaton. he did not wish to discuss the lines. images from the explosion, the argument, the girl fading to mist, came back and he pushed them aside.
“you sure?” asked Oriel, coming to stand beside Ashton. he met Eaton’s gaze, iridescent eyes alert. his weathered face that of a former Craftsman, a shimmering reminder for every product tested. “Sable didn’t strike me as the type to send Sellers he wanted to keep close by off to find new followers,” said Oriel, with a glance at the cabin. “but I guess, with your boss dead, you can do what you want.”
Eaton felt his cheeks reddening. “he threatened us, me and Miki. then he had an orb, one like his father’s. it was dangerous - I told him - but he didn’t listen. I fused it with a mirror, threw it, then I ran.”
Oriel and Ashton looked at one another, then back at Eaton.
“could I see the card?” asked Oriel.
Eaton took out his wallet, fumbled with the black card and handed it over.
through the cabin windows he saw the twins leaving the table in deep conversation with one another. Ashton followed his gaze.
“they’re of age,” said Eaton nervously. “but it wasn’t like I planned it. he was abusing them; he’s just like he was in Canby! and they were heading for the Grey House, or another House once the recruiter learned about Sable. those twins, they deserve better.”
“better?” said Ashton. “you narrowly avoided facing the trade’s wrath for Sable’s death, and tonight you almost got arrested. I’m starting to think you didn't deserve what Oriel did for you, giving the Grey House tin to Indigo instead of leaving it for your cronies.”
“I…you…,” stammered Eaton. “really?”
“yeah,” said Oriel, handing the card back to him.
“thank you, Oriel, the tin….”
“you’re welcome,” said Oriel. “just know she’s worried about you. and if you really want to help those kids, there are ways to do so even if you’re not in the trade.”
“I’ve tried living without it,” said Eaton, “I can’t. it’s imposs-”
“no, it isn’t,” said Ashton. “but it’s not easy. just, whatever you do, don’t go back to Canby. I heard about that shack you rented, what you did to make a living; you can do better than that.”
Eaton held more firmly to the card in his hand, it was cold, lifeless.
“it’s your choice though,” said Ashton, “who am I to stop you?” he sounded bitter. when Eaton met his gaze, he saw a fierceness unlike anything he remembered.
“goodnight, Eaton,” said Oriel, and he turned to go. “use my card wisely.”
inky blackness swallowed the pair. Eaton knew they would tell her what happened. fear churned within him as he went back into his cabin.
the twins' murmurings from the loft stopped when he closed the door, but started again as he tended the fire. he hoped the loft wasn’t too dusty for them, the old iron beds not too uncomfortable, the mattresses not too saggy.
Eaton went to move Miki to the bed and was pleasantly surprised to find the dog agile enough to leap from the couch and walk to the bedroom himself. when he scratched Miki’s ears and heard appreciative “ro-ro-rowls”, he could almost forget how much had changed.
the memory from the mirror bobbed to the surface of his mind as his body succumbed to sleep. he thought of Sable’s death, and how it felt no less horrible as self-defence. then the faces of Ashton, Oriel and Dara spun to the front of his thoughts. and, lastly, hers.
when Eaton awoke the next morning, he found Kolina and Zev at the table playing an old wooden checkers game. Eaton recognized it as his the one his father had made him for his eighth birthday - he’d forgotten he still had it.
“is this okay?” asked Kolina timidly, motioning to the game. “we found it in the loft.”
“yeah, fine with me.”
Eaton joined them at the table and started eating his breakfast.
“would you like tea?” asked Kolina. “I made some.”
“sure,” he said.
Kolina tiptoed toward the kettle.
Eaton watched the twins playing as he ate; he felt them studying him in turn, a pattern that made for a distracted checkers game. he considered the plan that had been formulating at the back of his mind since the explosion.
“delicious tea,” he said. “thank you.”
“n-no problem,” said Kolina, startled.
“so, I’ve been thinking,” he said, causing Kolina to look even more frightened and Zev to look worried. “it’s nothing bad,” he said, in response to their looks, “but I’ll need your help. I’ve decided to move.”
the twins exchanged glances.
“I don’t have much to pack, and all the furniture came with the place anyway, so I just need to put everything in the truck and tidy up.”
“where are you going?” asked Zev.
“well, we, are going west.”
“we can come?” asked Kolina, eyes wide.
“yes, of course you can come,” said Eaton. he would never abandon another human being. Oriel, Dara and Ashton had known he would have taken them along; it had been their choice to stay with Sable, just as it had been Eaton's to return.
as Eaton had told the twins, there was very little to pack. three years had not been much time to acquire anything, especially with the frequent Gathering expeditions during the first two and a half years. he packed up his clothes, towels, food, toiletries, Miki’s stuff and a few other odds and ends, and let the twins stow the checkers game with their belongings.
Miki seemed to be doing much better as he moved about the cabin. Eaton had expected at least another day of recovery; the paste had never worked so fast before. he took along the herbs and paste just in case.
Kolina spent the morning washing linens. she had been so subtle that Eaton only realized they were clean when he went to move Miki’s dog food from the small storage closet and found them in a neatly folded stack on the dryer. he thanked her; she jumped, blushed and then held the door open for him as he took the dog food out to the truck.
Zev helped Eaton organize the truck and by the early afternoon they were finished. the trio enjoyed a quick lunch before heading off.
Eaton gave his cabin key and last rent to his landlord who, Eaton was surprised to find, was sorry to see him go.
“you've fixed up the place nicely, it’s a shame you’ve gotta leave, but,” the man eyed Eaton’s silver lines and nodded, “ya gotta go where the work is.”
when Eaton pulled into a gas station, the young man volunteered to pump before the truck had even stopped.
while the young man pumped the gas, Eaton checked on Miki. Kolina was petting him and he was leaning against her.
“ro-rowl,” said Miki, when he noticed Eaton watching. Kolina jumped.
“glad you’re feeling better, boy,” said Eaton, as Kolina’s arm darted from view. “it’s okay, you can keep petting him.”
Kolina murmured indistinctly and turned to rummage in her bag.
the moments passed awkwardly until Zev returned and told him the amount.
when it was time to go inside, Eaton hesitated. he eyed the gas station and was partway through putting up his hood when he stopped himself. he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and got out of the truck.
inside, there were two other customers and the owner. he got in line and the owner’s gaze found him immediately. he knew how the owner felt about the trade and figured he wouldn’t go unnoticed, but the attention on him seemed particularly keen. he reminded himself why he was keeping his hood down and tried to ignore the discomfort.
in a few short moments, Eaton was alone with the owner. never once did the owner’s gaze leave him, even as he calculated his change. when Eaton turned to go, the owner cleared his throat.
“I know you were there last night,” said the owner, “at my house.”
Eaton’s hand hovered over the door handle.
“you got lucky, you know, with that pair of Melters asking to let you get away with those kids. but if you come back, you’ll go the same way as your friend, got it?”
Eaton turned his head slightly toward the owner. “yes,” he said.
he walked numbly across the parking lot as everything sunk in. he hadn't known the gas station owner and the garden's new owner were one in the same. he looked at the twins chatting in the back seat. was Ashton right? did they deserve better than him?
as Eaton drove along a deserted stretch of road with a sea of trees on either side, he glanced into the backseat. Zev dozed against the window; Kolina slept with her head on his shoulder and her left arm stretched across Miki. the dog’s breathing was even as he slept; he had recovered.
though Eaton turned his attention back to the road, he did not forget what he had seen - confirmation of what he had only guessed at before; on the left arm that rested on Miki and had so tenderly caressed his fur, beneath the bruises left by the recruiter, was a certain arrangement of freckles. Kolina had been trying to hide them; he hoped to prove to her she didn’t have to. not wearing his hood had been a small gesture, but it was a start.
in a village nestled in a leafy valley, the trio found a motel to spend the night. the motel was set in a grove of maple trees and run by a spirited young couple. the couple even let Miki stay in the room, though pets technically weren’t allowed.
“he’s cute and looks super well-behaved!” said the woman, as the man handed them their key.
Eaton let the twins pick where they went for supper. their choice had quaint tables out front, but the night was windy so the trio went indoors. the server’s gaze travelled from his silver lines to the twins' bruised faces as she greeted them; he expected her to decline them service, but she led them to a booth near one of the windows.
Kolina and Zev studied the menu anxiously. Eaton found what he wanted relatively quickly, excited to see it on a menu farther east than he had anticipated.
“number nineteen’s pretty good,” he said, trying to lighten the mood.
“really?” asked Kolina.
“what’s nye…nee…the second word?” asked Zev.
“it’s a type of cabbage,” he said, then added, “but there’s a savoury sauce, other vegetables, and chicken, that’s what the last word means - chicken.”
when the waitress returned, all three of them ordered the same thing.
“that was good," said Zev, on the way back to their motel. "but what language was the menu in?”
“one of the mountain languages,” said Eaton.
“oh,” said Zev. “is that something you learn when you've been in the trade for awhile?”
“not anymore," said Eaton. "but I can teach you if you'd like, it's my first language.”
full and tired, the twins still had energy for one more game of checkers before turning in. Miki “ro-rowled” happily before entering dreamland. the sun was gone from the sky, the quartet was much farther west than when the day had begun and they were together, they were safe.