Maia is a teenage piano prodigy and dutiful daughter, imprisoned in the oppressive silence of her adoptive parents’ house like a princess in an ivory tower. Cass is a street rat, witch, and runaway, scraping by with her wits and her knack for a five-fingered discount. When a chance encounter brings the two girls together, an unlikely friendship blossoms that will soon change the course of both their lives.
Cass springs Maia from the jail of the only world she’s ever known, and Maia’s only too happy to make a break for it. But Cass didn’t reckon on Jason, the hypnotic blue-eyed rocker who’d capture Maia’s heart as soon as Cass set her free—and Cass isn’t the only one who’s noticed Maia’s extraordinary gifts. Is Cass strong enough to battle the ancient evil she’s unwittingly awakened—or has she walked into a trap that will destroy everything she cares about? In this time, like in any time, love is a dangerous game.
Sarah McCarry’s Dirty Wings is available July 15th from St Martin’s Press.
NOW: BIG SUR
Before any of this, she thinks, there was the kind of promise a girl just couldn’t keep. Before the bad decisions, before the night sky right now so big, so big it’s big enough to swallow the both of them, before her hands shaking stop shaking stop shaking stop shaking. She is standing at the precipice of a cliff, the edges of her vision sparking out into static, the heaving sea below her moving against the rocky shore with a roar. The wind is wild in her ears, singing her down. Not even the work of a jump. Just let yourself tip backward, let it go. Before any of this, was there ever a chance for something else? The lowering moon swollen huge. Her hands ache, longing and more than longing. If there were chords that said this. Out there beyond the farthest reach of the world, out at the edge of everything, he is waiting for her. White face and long black coat and the knife-thin beckon of his mouth. His eyes darker than all the dark around her. The promise of him: honey flowing from the cracked earth, a crown of stars at her brow. The wildness of her despair at last made quiet. In her nostrils the heady tang of blood. A dog howls in the dark, three times. She can see the black palace on the white plain, its hundreds of doors open to welcome the night in. She takes a step forward. You can play again, he says. Play for us. You can play for all the years of the long night in my kingdom.
“Hey, princess,” says the familiar voice behind her. “Come on. Come back from there.” A hand takes hers, pulling her away from the brink. “What are you doing? You’re going to fall.” Cass’s touch is insistent, bringing her back to her own skin, the solid earth under her bare feet. The madness leaches slowly out of the night. A car door slams somewhere behind her in the campground; a child shouts. “Maia. Come on. Girl. Come away from the edge.” She shudders, thinks of leaping free like a deer, plunging into the abyss, and then the spell of Cass’s gentle hands on her bare skin brings her back to herself and her twitching limbs still.
What did I almost just do, she thinks. Oh god, no, I don’t want to fall, even as she stumbles backward, her clumsy feet carrying her away from the precipice. Back to the campfire’s kind glow, their tent, Cass’s arms around her, Cass’s soft voice in her ear, murmuring, “Come on, princess, one foot after the other, come on. Nice and slow.”
I will wait for you, child, he says, his voice deep as stone in the heart of her. I will wait. You will play for us.
No, she says.
But even in the circle of Cass’s arms she can see his smile.
Oscar is wearing his white suit today and he’s unhappy with her. “Again,” he says. “This passage. We will play only this passage, until it is correct.”
He doesn’t mean “we.” He means her. His disappointment is like a rain cloud filling the room, drizzling resignation across his neat features and tiny frame. In the white suit he looks even more like a child: his ageless face unlined, though Maia knows he’s at least fifty, his snowy hair still thick and unruly, his eyes bright and alert as an owl’s. And as dispassionate.
“Do you see,” he says, pointing to the page, in a tone that clearly indicates she does not. “Here is the song, here in the left hand. You bury it. We listen and we ask ourselves, ‘Where is the story? Where is the beauty in this piece?’ It is like listening to something that is, how do you say. Muddy. You play this and it is a wall of mud, Maia.” Oscar’s English is perfect; he’s lived in the States for decades. But he likes hamming it up when he’s displeased.
“No mud,” she repeats dutifully.
“The mud is agonizing to me, Maia.”
She nods. Sets her hands at the keys. Plays the arpeggios for him again, and again, and again, each time faster, each time more precise, as though by mastering the passage with near-inhuman speed she can somehow open up whatever it is that’s closed in her. When she plays it for a tenth time Oscar gestures to her to keep going and she surges forward, borne away by her own momentum, the notes rolling off her fingers, the music pounding through her and tumbling across the keys. When she’s played through the étude, Oscar straightens the lapels of his white suit and leans back in his chair.
“You are very good,” he says after a long silence. “You know this. You are the most gifted student I have taught in many years. You work. You practice. You are serious. You have the ability to make a career. Even now, if we were not here”—he makes a sweeping gesture that encompasses the entirety of his house, the city, the backward corner of the world in which they have found each other—“if we were not here, and lived in a real place, a place of culture, who knows what would happen for you already. But you know what I am about to tell you. I say this to you always.”
“No emotion. Tell me, what is it you are so afraid of?” She is silent. “You will not tell me. This is unfortunate.” His French accent thickens. “Chérie. You mustn’t think as much as you think. You must breathe it. You must trust it with your own hands. This is why we practice and practice and practice, so that the notes become our own, so that we inhabit them until it is as though we wrote them ourselves. Until we see through to the other side. We are not draft oxen. It is not enough to work. Anyone can work. If you were only to work it would be better for you to shovel a ditch, do you see? For to only work, it is never to be great, and if you are never to be great there is no point in trying. You pick a profession that is sensible and have little babies and a house.” He says “babies” with a tone of utter disgust. “This is all clear to you?”
“I want to be great,” Maia says.
“I know this, I know you do. I see it in you. You look at me, here, all alone, I play for children. I do not mean you. For these wretched children with their runny noses, every day they come to me, their parents say, ‘Oscar, you make my child a musician,’ and I say in my heart, ‘I cannot make a peasant into the queen of France.’ You must not end up like me. Broken and old. I could also have been great. I will never be great now. I am a sad man with a sad life, which I have ruined for myself, as you know. But you, child, your life is ahead of you.”
He purses his lips. “It is not a matter of try. Come, let us end on a pleasant note, if you will forgive me a little pun. Play for me Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat Minor. Just a little of the funeral march, if you please, to soothe my sad old heart. Do you know Schumann said that this piece had something repulsive about it? It only goes to show you that there are Philistines in even the most unexpected places. But of course, now we remember Schumann as a man who could have been one of the greatest composers of the nineteenth century if only he had been coherent, which is not a criticism we apply to Chopin, is it.”
“No, I guess we don’t,” Maia says.
Oscar is placated by the Chopin and releases her at last. She gathers her things and he escorts her to the door, as he always does, though she’s spent countless hours of her life in this house, knows the worn path from the piano to the front door so well she could mark it out with her eyes closed. Oscar’s creaking old Victorian is nothing like her own beige-carpeted house with its white walls and spotless floors. Even now, the cleaning lady is probably bleaching counters, scrubbing toilets, washing already-clean white sheets. Oscar’s house is an oasis of shabby majesty, littered with books and papers and dirty coffee cups, overflowing ashtrays teetering precariously atop stacks of newspapers and notebooks and sheet music. When she was little, he’d let her linger after her lessons in his enormous library—an entire room full of nothing but books, crammed shelves stretching from the floor to the ceiling, books spilling over into piles on the floor. Books in French and English and Spanish and Italian, books about music and history and gardening and cooking. A disintegrating leather-bound set of the complete works of Balzac, translated into English, that she’d devoured in the drowsy afternoons until he sent her home to practice. Biographies of Ravel and Debussy and Chopin and Fauré, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, Oscar’s own teacher Nadia Boulanger. (She has seen him mimic her countless times; when someone asks him what he thinks of something Maia knows he finds distasteful, he says, vaguely, “Oh! You know what I think about that.”) A battered paperback of Les trois mousquetaires that she’d struggled through in the original French. If Oscar was happy with her he would read passages aloud in a hilarious, affected baritone.
The rooms in Oscar’s house are papered with ancient, hand-painted wallpaper, once grand but now peeling in long strips from the walls. His dusty wooden floors are scattered with threadbare Oriental carpets, piled three or four deep; the windows are hung with velvet drapes, in some places so worn that light drifts through them to stain the dark floors gold. The disorder of Oscar’s house is like a sanctuary. No one here to follow after her with a dustcloth, check the soles of her feet for dirt, demand she remake the bed until the spread lies without a single wrinkle, the ruffles falling from the decorative pillows just so. Not that Maia has friends who might see the dust ruffle askew. Oscar can pick a single bad violinist out of a symphony orchestra, but Maia cannot imagine him noticing if she moved a pile of dirt into his kitchen with a bulldozer.
Only Oscar’s front room, the piano room, is tidy. Oscar keeps his immense Hamburg Steinway—Maia has no idea how much it cost, or how he’d afforded it—polished mirrorclean. No rugs on the swept floor, no shelves on the walls, no tables littered with teapots and packs of the Gauloises that his cousin sends him from Paris by the carton. No paintings, no chip-eared busts of famous composers, no highball glasses with sticky smears of bourbon at their bottoms. Just the piano and Oscar’s armchair, where he has sat and watched her play three times a week for the last fourteen years.
“Listen,” he says now, one hand coming to rest lightly on her shoulder. “I wish for you to play something new.”
“Okay.” She stands the way her mother hates, one foot turned inward, resting her weight on its outside edge. He takes his hand away and disappears into the other room for a moment, returns with a sheaf of sheet music.
“Gaspard de la nuit?” She riffles through the pages. Ravel, three movements. She can tell at a glance that it’s harder than anything she’s ever played.
“It is, how do you call.” She resists the urge to roll her eyes. “Difficile.”
“Comme tous les autres.”
He laughs. “Bien sûr, chérie. We will begin with the first movement. ‘Ondine,’ you will play for me next week. I wish you to play it for your audition.” He means her audition for the music conservatory in New York he has chosen for her, the audition this spring that will decide the course of her future. “It must make you think of demons and that sort of thing.”
He clicks his tongue against his teeth. “Demons. Demons and ghosts.”
She keeps her face neutral, wonders if Oscar’s shucked straight off his rocker. “Demons. Okay.”
He beams, pats her shoulder. “Demons. Next week.”
“Next week.” As always, when he holds the front door open for her she almost curtsies.
It must have rained while she was at Oscar’s; the sidewalks are slick and slug-streaked, and there’s still a faint mist to the world that leaves her cheeks dewy. If she walks home it’ll take her an hour and there will probably be hell to pay, but she’s restless for no reason, too antsy to wait for the bus that won’t come for another twenty minutes at least anyway. She tucks Oscar’s music into her shoulder bag. She can walk along the canal and cut over to the university before she reaches the freeway.
The January air has a chilly, damp edge to it, and she pulls her jacket tighter as she walks. The streets are deserted. Her brown loafers make a neat tap on the wet pavement. She’s tempted to step deliberately in a puddle, take some of the shine off the polished leather, but even tiny rebellions never go unnoticed in her house. Sit up straight, cross your legs like a lady, chew with your mouth closed, speak when spoken to. The severe line of her mother’s unsmiling mouth, immaculately lipsticked in her immaculate white face. Tasteful pearl earrings, silk blouses without a single wrinkle, the delicate gold cross always at her throat. Blond hair pinned back into a neat chignon if she’s teaching, spilling down her shoulders in rich honeyed waves if she’s going out. The click of her heels—never in the house, never ever on the floors; no one wears shoes in the house. Her cool green eyes. When Maia was little, her mother dressed her like a doll, ruffled pinafores and starched collars and a red wool coat that buttoned all the way to her throat; Maia dreams about that coat sometimes, dreams where she’s choking. Her mother dresses her still. It’s easier than fighting and anyway, what does she care about clothes. When she sees herself in a mirror, her dark hair sleek and straight, twins of her mother’s pearl earrings—a sixteenth-birthday present from her father—dotting her own ears, pressed khakis, the loafers with their tassels falling neatly over her instep, she sometimes fails to recognize herself. And then she sees her brown face and remembers. Her skin makes it hard to forget.
She stops by the canal for longer than she should to watch a yacht make its stately way toward the Sound. Even this early in the year the water’s dotted with kayakers, wetsuited against the chill. Their boats flash bright yellow and orange against the grey water, double-bladed paddles dipping with a rhythm like wings. Her father took her kayaking once, when she was small. They’d both been clumsy, splashing more water than they moved through; Maia nearly upended herself in the lake. Shrieking with delight, sun hot on her shoulders, the white sails of a nearby boat crisp against the blue sky. The water so close to her fingers, that far from shore, was disconcerting. If she’d fallen she could have tumbled endlessly through that deep green world to some alien kingdom at the bottom of the lake, where fish-finned women swam with their long hair streaming behind them. A palace she could almost picture, dark turrets rising against the darker depths. But there’s no fear in the memory, only joy. When she thinks of darkness, she thinks of sleep, not death. The moments of her life when she was happy are easy for her to catalogue, because there are so few of them that aren’t at a piano. She keeps walking.
It takes less time than she thought it would to reach the Ave, and she wonders why she’s never walked home from Oscar’s before. If she hurries, she might even beat her mother home from her afternoon seminar. Her mother teaches the history of ancient Greece; it’s easy to impose order on dead civilizations. Maia’s never sat in on one of her classes, but she can imagine the scene. Her mother, starkly beautiful, moving her elegant hands to illustrate the difference between kinds of spears. The front row of desks crowded with admirers writing down her every word.
Despite the chill in the air, the Ave is crowded. Students laden with books hurry to classes; a couple of jocks play Hacky Sack outside a coffee shop; a patch of scraggly street kids trailing hemp ropes and mangy dogs begs for change on a corner. Maia looks away from them, walks faster as she passes. One girl calls out to her. “Hey, princess. Spare a quarter?” Maia pulls her shoulders up to her ears. But the voice gets louder. “Hey, princess. You got somewhere to be?”
Maia stops. The girl’s gotten up to follow her. She’s about Maia’s age, with wild-cropped blond hair dyed red at the ends. She’s wearing a dog collar as a necklace, a filthy T-shirt under a cardigan three sizes too big for her, and a pair of camouflage pants tucked into black combat boots. But the most striking thing about her is her eyes—sea-grey pools Maia can’t look away from. “You got somewhere to be?” the girl repeats. Maia shakes her head. Then, panicked, she nods. “Which one is it?”
“Somewhere,” Maia whispers. “Somewhere to be.”
The girl looks her up and down. “Tea party? Etiquette lesson? Damn, girl, who put you in those shoes?”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Someone you know does.” The girl’s mouth twitches into a smile that’s gone so fast Maia wonders if she imagined it. “Come on. Help me out.”
“I really don’t.”
“Then at least do me a tiny favor. Look, I’m not from here. I need directions.”
“Complicated directions. I need a map. Can you get me a map?”
“A map?” Maia repeats.
“You dressed like a stockbroker and deaf? Hello, cruel world. I bet they have some kind of map in that convenience store. Of the area. Or the state. State parks. Like, any kind of map. But listen, you don’t know me, right? So don’t act like you know me. Because you don’t. Come on.”
“I told you I don’t have any money.”
“Then get me a free one.”
The girl propels Maia with one hand toward a convenience store across the street. Bemused, Maia lets herself be directed. Once they’re inside, the girl whips her hand away and saunters over to the beer aisle, whistling. She pulls bottles out of the refrigerated case, puts them back again.
Maia looks for a rack of maps, doesn’t see any. “Excuse me?” she says to the man at the register. He’s watching the girl with a wary eye, doesn’t notice her. “Excuse me?” she repeats, louder. He looks at her. “Do you have maps?”
“Maps of what?”
“Of, um, the area? Like a tourist map?”
Now he’s irritated. “I look like a tourist to you, kid?” The girl is rummaging through bags of chips. “Hey!” he yells at her. “You ain’t got money. I know you kids. Come on, get the hell out of here.”
“No crime being in the aisle,” she snaps back.
“It is if I say it is. Get.”
She storms up to the cash register, knocking Maia aside with the full weight of her slight body. Maia can smell her skin. Sweat and underneath it something musky and wild. “I could call the cops on you,” she hisses. “Fucking old perv.”
The man at the register has gone from cranky to irate. “I mean it! Get the hell out of my store!”
She lifts her chin. Despite the dirt, the ragged clothes, she looks like a queen. “I go where I want,” she says softly, and then she walks out the door. The man at the register scowls.
“Goddamn street kids,” he mutters. “Someone oughta exterminate the lot of ’em. What kind of map you want, honey? I got a street map.”
“You have any free maps?”
“Free maps? Go to the goddamn library.” He stares at her in disgust. For the first time it occurs to her to wonder why the girl didn’t ask for her own map.
“Okay,” she says. “Thanks anyway.” He snorts.
Outside, the girl is waiting for her in an alley down the block, one foot against a brick wall. She’s smiling for real this time, a smile that’s not going anywhere. Her teeth are fetchingly crooked.
“I didn’t get your map.”
The girl puts both hands on her knees and hoots. Maia is bewildered by her reaction. “I bet you didn’t,” she says, still laughing. “It’s cool. Let me see your bag.”
“No way,” Maia says. “Look, I don’t know what your deal is, but I’m going to go.”
“Sure thing, princess. Just one minute, though.” The girl pushes off with her foot and in one swift movement reaches into Maia’s shoulder bag before she can protest. To Maia’s utter astonishment, she pulls out two bottles of beer.
“Where did those come from?” Maia gasps.
“You stole them.”
“I didn’t steal anything!”
“What did you think I was doing in there? Coloring? Come on, girl, don’t tell me you’re that dumb.”
“You did. That deserves a drink, don’t you think? Come on.” The girl takes her hand, tugs her down the alley. Maia knows to say no. Maia knows to get the hell out of here, right now, get home, never come back to this corner again as long as she lives. The girl pries the bottles’ caps off with a lighter and holds one out to Maia. “It’s just a beer,” she says gently. “It won’t bite you.” Maia accepts the bottle gingerly, as if she expects it to detonate in her hand.
“I’m Cass,” the girl says. “Short for Cassandra. The bitch who knew everything and no one would listen to.”
“I know who Cassandra was. I’m Maia.” She takes a sip, nearly spits it out. Beer foams over the lip of the bottle.
“You ever even drink before?” Maia shakes her head mutely, mortified.
“Well then. It’s a day of firsts for you.” That grin again.
“How did you even—I mean, I didn’t even see you. You did it when you bumped into me?”
Cass rolls her eyes. “You live near here?”
“Up by the college.”
Maia shrugs. “My mom’s a professor. My dad—” She stops. What is there to say about her dad? “My dad’s a writer.”
“Fancier and fancier.”
“Where do you live?”
“I squat a place with some kids.”
“You squat?” Maia imagines a roomful of dirty girls like Cass, crouched down on their haunches.
“You know, like an abandoned building that we moved into?” Maia’s face is blank with incomprehension. “Girl, where are you from? Do you know anything?”
“I know lots of things,” Maia says, indignant.
“Different things than I know, I guess. Anyway, it’s an old house that no one was living in. Some people I know took it over, and I live with them.”
“Those people back there? With the dogs?”
“Some of them. People come and go.”
“You said you weren’t from here.”
“I lied. You know how it is.”
Maia has absolutely no idea how it is, cannot begin to imagine how it is. How does this girl eat? Take baths? What does she do for money? How did she get here? Does she have parents? Where does she sleep? Does she even have a bed? Maia considers which of these questions would be appropriate, decides none of them. “Do you like it?”
Cass shrugs, tilts her head back, finishes her beer. “Come on, princess, drink up. It’ll do you good. We’ll find some more and keep drinking.”
Maia thinks about what time it must be, and her heart thumps in her chest. “I can’t,” she says, handing her beer to Cass. “I have to go. Really. I can’t. My mom—I can’t.” Cass looks at her again. Those cool grey eyes.
“Maybe I’ll see you again,” she says.
Despite herself, Maia smiles. “Sure.”
Cass’s story is so boring she tells it to no one. Dad dead of a heart attack when she was just a kid, a series of stepdads Cass’s mom picked up somewhere between her favorite bar and her second-favorite bar. Maybe her third-favorite bar. That would explain what assholes they were. Bad grades, bad home, bad friends. Pretty soon having to lock her bedroom door at night: Bad stepdad, what a surprise. Not that the lock stopped him.
There was a shelter for a while when she was eleven, in between stepdads one and two; stepdad one had been a hitter. He’d seemed nice enough at first. He had a real job, something at the bank. He wore suits and took her mom out to dinner and bought Cass a doll with white-blond hair and a painted-on red smirk. When he’d gotten transferred to a branch in Portland he’d told them he wanted to move as a family, and so they did. Cass’s stuffed dog next to the new doll in her pink plastic backpack, a rented truck, a new apartment with mint-green walls. And then once the both of them were stuck, once they had no place else to go, no friends, no car, and no one to talk to, he went monster. Stopped going to his job, stopped paying for anything, stopped the candy-sweet words and steak dinners. The first time he’d hit Cass’s mom was when she told him she didn’t have any money left in her savings to pay for groceries. The first time he hit Cass was when they left, in the middle of the night like secret agents, one suitcase between the two of them. Cass’s mom couldn’t afford a cab, so they walked two miles across town to the shelter, Cass’s cheek blooming with a riotous purple bruise that matched the sunrise sky. If I were in a movie, Cass thought, there would be a shot of my face, and then a shot of the clouds.
The shelter was in a residential neighborhood, an ordinary-looking house with a yard surrounded by other ordinary houses. The neighbors gave them dirty looks when they walked to the corner store for milk. The shelter was supposed to be a secret, but the neighbors weren’t stupid. There were other women and kids who lived in the shelter. The women who worked there sat in a little office by the front door. The daytime office women were serious and wore real office clothes. They had meetings with the moms and gave them lists of places to call and appointments to keep. But the women who sat in the office at night wore cutoff shorts and T-shirts and no bras. They chewed gum and ate their dinners, which they brought from home, in the big common room with the women who lived in the shelter. They slept on a bed in the office, and if you needed cold medicine in the middle of the night you could knock softly and they would come to the door, sleepily pushing their tousled hair out of their eyes, and hand it over to you in a tiny cup. All of them were pretty. Some of them were in college and told Cass about their classes. Anthropology, Cass said to herself later. Chemistry. Psychology. Those were things you could do, if you were a girl like that. One of the nighttime girls had brown skin, sleek black hair, orchids tattooed across her shoulders, and a ladder of white scars that stretched from her left wrist to her left elbow. Her dinner was always sushi that she had made herself, and once she gave Cass a piece: tofu, avocado, carrot, and brown rice, none of which Cass had ever had before. The orchid girl was Cass’s favorite.
Cass did not like the shelter, which smelled bad a lot of the time. The bathrooms were always dirty, no matter how many times they got cleaned. The mattresses had plastic covers on them that rustled when you moved, and at night the sonorous breath of too many people in too small a room kept Cass awake. The other kids went through her clothes. Sometimes the moms got in fights. Her own mom had gotten a job at a gas station half a mile away and was so worn thin with worry and weariness that Cass thought she might disappear altogether. After they had been at the shelter for a week, the orchid girl came out of the office one evening and asked Cass’s mother if she could talk to Cass for a little while. Cass had been in the office that first morning, when one of the women had asked her mother a lot of questions about her life and what had happened before they came here, so many questions that Cass had eventually fallen asleep, but not since then.
“Cassandra,” the orchid girl said. She sat down on the floor, her back against the bed in the office, and stretched. After a moment Cass sat down next to her. She stretched, too.
“Do you like it here so far?” asked the orchid girl. Cass considered lying; she did not want to get her mom in trouble. One of the other kids had told her that his mom had gotten kicked out of the last shelter and they had had to spend the night in an alley before his mom found a man who would pay for a hotel room. But something about the orchid girl’s face was so honest, so friendly, that Cass trusted her immediately.
“No,” Cass said.
“That’s pretty normal,” the orchid girl agreed. “Not the most fun, right? Where would you go if you could go anywhere?”
“I’d live on the beach,” Cass said, surprising herself. “I’d live in a little cabin on the beach. And I’d eat tofu and avocado every day. I would have a boat.”
“A warm beach?”
“Maybe. Well, no. I mean, the beach where I’m from. My mom took me there when I was really little. We went to the rainforest and then the ocean. It would be that beach, but warmer. So I wouldn’t need a coat.”
The orchid girl nodded thoughtfully. “I like that. Would your mom live with you?”
“If she wanted,” Cass said. “My mom’s okay. She’s just tired. If we lived on the beach she wouldn’t have to work. She could eat tofu and avocado, too.”
“You must really like tofu and avocado,” the orchid girl said solemnly. Cass shot her a sidelong glance and saw she was making a joke. Cass grinned a little.
“We could eat spaghetti, sometimes,” she said.
The orchid girl asked her more questions: What she liked to do for fun, what was best about school, what had happened in their last house. Sometimes she wrote Cass’s answers down on a piece of paper. Had the stepdad ever done anything bad to her? What was Cass afraid of? Cass wasn’t afraid of anything, but she told the orchid girl about her dreams. She’d always had dreams that were more than dreams. She’d dream of glass breaking, and the next day her mother would drop a bowl in the kitchen, curse as it shattered. She’d dream of a raft of dying animals, floating in a dark sea, and in the morning she’d find a newly dead kitten moldering next to the sidewalk, eyeless, its matted fur crawling with maggots. Sometimes she dreamed things that she knew would not come to pass for a long time to come: herself in a bright kitchen, its shelves lined with mason jars, tendrilly plants hanging from baskets. Herself on a beach, a white-sand beach, not the one she knew. Sun warm on her bare arms, the ocean flat and glassy before her. Herself in a vast apartment, chandeliers filled with candles hanging from the high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows showing a view of a dark sea under a darker sky. A darkskinned man with long dreadlocks sailing a little wooden boat across a whitecapped grey sea. A girl whose blue eyes were startling in her brown skin, looking up at a night sky glowing white with stars.
When Cass was a small child, she’d been out one afternoon in the woods, playing alone in a stand of evergreens. A cloud moved across the sun and a hush fell through the forest. She lifted her head and saw a man standing between two trees a little ways away. Tall and thin, in a long black coat. Death-pale face. The glitter of rubies at his throat. “Hello,” she said.
Hello, Cassandra, he replied, in a voice like stone. His mouth did not move when he spoke.
“Are you a ghost?” she asked.
The people of your time do not have a word for what I am.
“You look like a ghost. Are you sad?”
He had taken a step forward, looking down at her. I am very old. And before she could tell him that that wasn’t what she had asked, that wasn’t an answer at all, he stepped back into the shadow of a tree and vanished. There was a bright fuzz around the edges of her vision and the air tasted of smoke and ashes. She went home and told her mother she’d seen a ghost. Her mother was watching television with all the drapes drawn, her face slack, lit greenish in the flicker of the screen. “I told you not to talk to strangers,” her mother said, changing channels. “Go outside and play.”
Even then, Cass understood that the world was not quite the same for her as it was for other people, that the lines between the real and the not-real, the present and the past, were sometimes blurred inside her. She tried talking to animals, but they did not understand her any better than they understood other girls. She tried telling the weather to change its patterns, but the sun shone or didn’t no matter what kind of morning she’d asked for. But sometimes out of the corner of her eye she saw a group of tall, stern, pale people, battling one another with swords, or sailing ships across a wine-dark sea. She saw an island of one-eyed monsters dotted with sheep. She saw a woman with the face of a goddess and serpents winding out of her skull. She saw these things when she slept, and saw them again in waking, and sometimes if she called after them, if she cried out, “Wait, wait,” one of them would half-turn as if listening. “Take me with you,” she begged. “Take me with you.” But they never did.
The orchid girl was quiet for a long time, and Cass wondered if she’d said too much. If they were going to take her away now, make her sleep in an alley. Call the police. Whatever happened to freaky monster-seeing girls who didn’t fit the right way in the world.
“I have dreams like that, too,” the orchid girl said instead.
“Does everybody?” Cass asked.
“No,” she said.
“Is there something wrong with me?”
“Do you think there’s something wrong with me?”
Cass looked up at the orchid girl. “You seem fine,” she said.
“Well then,” said the orchid girl. “There you go.”
After a month, Cass’s mom saved up enough from the gas station for them to take the bus back to Seattle and get a room in an apartment they shared with another mom and her son, who went into their bedroom and shut the door whenever Cass was in the apartment. Cass went back to school. For a while, things seemed like they might be good. But then came the second stepdad, and another apartment with just him, and Cass having to lock her door at night. She knew better than to tell her mom. It was the stepdad or the shelter again, and anything was better than the shelter. After the second stepdad came the third. The third was a yeller, not a hitter or a toucher. “You little whore,” he liked to yell, at either Cass or her mother. Or sometimes “You goddamned whores,” at both of them: two birds with one stone. By the third stepfather, Cass’s mother’s eyes were dead and her shoulders had a permanent slump to them, and though she’d been pretty and chatty and alive when Cass was younger, the stepfathers had wiped anything like beauty from her face. By the third stepfather, Cass’s mom had stopped saying anything at all. It was easiest for Cass just to leave, and so she did. Became her own bad news. Cass, catlike, landing feetfirst, teaching herself young to fight her own battles with fists or with wits. Whichever got her clear of trouble she didn’t go out seeking herself. She took to drugs like she was born with an addict’s sneaky wit, rifling her mom’s prescriptions, and then, when her mom caught on to that racket, finding the first of a long stretch of mean-eyed boys way too old for her.
Half the girls Cass knows, all the girls Cass lives with, are living the same after-school special, with minor variations. She loves them, to be sure. They’ve kept her safe and fed and watched her back. The squat is like a family, riddled with squabbles and bad blood and old grievances, but at the end of the day they take care of each other. They share what they have, split their food stamps, aren’t stingy with their drugs or their booze. Cass fell into them, and they caught her. Brought her back to their derelict manor and welcomed her in.
Squat is the wrong word, technically. It’s somebody’s aunt’s brother-in-law’s cousin’s house, more or less condemned, its front yard overgrown with chest-high weeds and pieces of its roof missing. No rent exchanges hands, but there is, somewhere, an actual owner; the only thing, Cass is sure, that keeps the neighbors from being able to get them out. There’s no power, though somehow they still have running water. They carry their garbage to a Dumpster outside a minimarket down the block, rather less often than they should. They keep a low profile in exchange for the neighbors’ unwilling silence, and this tenuous equilibrium lurches forward toward an indefinite future. Cass has only lived here a year. Their elder statesman, Mayhem, has been here for four. It’s better than her mom’s house, though that’s not a particularly strong recommendation. Cass even has her own room, with windows she edges in duct tape in winter to keep out the cold and throws open in spring to let in the warm new-scented air. The room was carpeted in a filthy shag when she laid claim to it, but she’s since torn it out, sanded the floor, and painted it a rich dark brown. (That crisp fall afternoon, Cass and Felony pushing a full-to-the-brim shopping cart of paint and sandpaper and brushes and paint trays out the front door of the hardware store, cool as you please. Felony’d stolen a virulent magenta with which to color her own room’s walls, but the color was, not surprisingly, an eyesore. “Goddammit,” she’d sighed, gazing at the fluorescent horror she’d created, “now I’m going to have to go back.”) Cass papered her walls with a collage of show flyers and pictures of faraway cities cut out of magazines pilfered from strangers’ garbage, made herself a desk out of milk crates and a board. Mason jars in the windowsills, filled with dried flowers. Candles to keep away the dark. Cass doesn’t like to sleep, because sleeping means dreams.
Lately, in her dreams, she’s begun to talk to dead people. This, she tells no one at all, but that makes it no less real. Shades slip in, uninvited, to the twilit world she wanders somewhere between waking and sleep. Her father, his eyes pleading, reaches out to her, but when she moves to touch him her hands strike an invisible wall, as though she’s trying to push through a window. She sees a man with bloody holes where his eyes should be, tears of blood trickling from the sockets. She sees people she has never met, but knows from newspapers or television: overdosed rock stars, politicians killed by snipers, voiceless legions who died in genocide or war. She sees the tall man in the black coat again, looking down at her as she sleeps, but when she opens her mouth to say hello she finds her lips are sewn together with thread. She dreams about a black river in a dark forest, a palace dotted with a hundred open doors on a dead white plain, a three-headed dog. Sometimes the thought of sleep is so terrifying she stays up for days, doing speed until her eyes feel as though they will come out of her head and the walls crawl with things that aren’t there and it’s as bad being awake as it is being asleep. Mayhem gets her hands on some Dilaudid and that, for a little while, sends Cass into an intense, dreamless sleep like a coma. She’s so grateful for the respite she cries when she wakes up, her body fighting its way out of the abyss of oblivion against her will.
“Do you ever see things?” she asks Felony, the evening of the day she shoplifts beer with the weird preppy girl she met on the street. They’re rooting through a grocery-store Dumpster. Felony trains the flashlight on Cass, so that her face disappears behind a blaze of white light. Cass squints.
“Like, things that aren’t real.”
Felony turns the light back to the Dumpster. “You’re doing too many drugs, Cass.”
“Not like that. I know the difference.”
Felony holds up a plastic package of strawberries. “Look at these, only a couple moldy ones.” She tucks it into her backpack. “I don’t know, girl, just lay off the speed.” Cass knows better, really, than to ask, but she thinks that maybe if she’s going crazy someone else will have noticed. Someone will tell her, at least, and then she can go about putting a stop to it. However you put a stop to those sorts of things. Exorcism? Ritalin? She pictures herself in a group-therapy situation. “Do you think I’m going crazy?” she asks Felony, on their walk back to the squat.
Felony shrugs, digs the strawberries back out of her bag, and puts three in her mouth at once. “Crazy is relative,” she says through a mouthful of fruit. “Why you going on about this shit, anyway?” Which Cass finds inexplicably comforting.
“I met this girl today,” Cass says.
“Huh.” Felony is going through the strawberries so briskly there’ll be none left by the time they get back to the house.
“Hey, give me one of those. I met her in the street. I got her to steal beer with me.”
“Huh,” Felony says, again handing Cass the strawberries with visible reluctance.
“I don’t think she ever drank beer before.”
“Weird,” Felony says. “What is she, straight edge?”
“No,” Cass says. “I think she’s just lost.” She eats a strawberry thoughtfully and looks up at the sky. “New moon,” she says.
“Does that mean something?” Felony cranes her neck, peering upward, and trips over a pothole.
“It means you should watch where you’re going, you dumb bitch,” Cass says, and takes off running.
“Give me back my fucking strawberries, you mangy little whore!” Felony yells, and they whoop back and forth, their voices echoing down the deserted street, as they race each other the rest of the way home.
Dirty Wings © Sarah McCarry, 2014