Cloaked in the shadow of the great dividing wall, we cross the rooftops of the Outer Ring. Cold winter air seeps into my clothes, while its external brother snaps at my heels and nips at my fingertips, urging me faster into the unforgiving night—the sun hardly set, a radiant ruby haze still bleeding at the ocean's horizon. We try to suck up those last few minutes of warmth; absorb them into our bones and wrap our arms around them so tightly they don't slip out through the cracks.
The distant dream of warm summers can't chase out the icy reality of winterheld home.
Bits of red tile crumble underneath Boruc's weight, skittering down the side of the roof- either ending up in the gutter or embedded into the dirt roads below, creating an unintentional mosaic of thieving memories. Veni glares at him, lifting a ripped glove to her lips and shushing him, her sharp nails just barely protruding from the shredded fabric. He rolls his eyes and shrugs in silent, unwilling apology and she does the same to show her acceptance. They communicate without words more often than with, sharing a bond I wish I had. The kind of bond that lonely children can only dream of and, when they do, it's sweet enough to make your teeth rot and your heart ache.
One day, I'll have that bond.
Tonight, I don't.
From my place off to the right, I burrow deeper into the shadows and darkness, wrapping their protective blankets around my bony shoulders as I watch them. If I angle myself just right, they're on the same level as the glittering horizon; walking on water, chasing the distant sapphire sky and burning with a fiery light. Up ahead, two more of their friends wait. They'll laugh and smile before retreating to the bar they live in for warm ginger drinks and heated blankets and food they haven't had to scavenge from a garbage can or pry from the bony grip of the dead.
I'll watch from a rooftop and close my eyes and taste roasted meat instead of wilted vegetables and creamy desserts instead of hard bread. I'll drink in the midnight air but savor the smoke of a roaring fire in the hearth—let it roll about on my tongue until my head is light as a feather. I'll warm my cold, cracked and blistered hands on the nearest flickering streetlight and pretend that it's a falling star.
I'll make a wish.
And then, when we're all fed and warm and happy with our full bellies and our wool blankets, I'll curl up in my shredded paper and cardboard and let myself dream.
I will dream of a forest in a world where there is plenty of food and water and the winter nights are like spring, so you're never cold. The trees will be as tall as the highest buildings and as wide as the Inner Circle; branches ripe with emerald leaves and brilliant fruit, colors so bright they'll hurt my eyes but never leave my belly empty. Flowers sprouting wild and untamed in my secret garden—all the medicine I'll ever need, filling my soul to the brim.
I will dream of a family that loves me and tells me to wash my face before dinner because we have enough water and food for neither to seem like a luxury.
I will dream.
And one day, I will never wake up.
The cold will ensure that.
I wake up.
The boy ensures that.
My eyes are burning with unshed and unnecessary tears, my forehead an explosion of fire and agony. Pale stringy hair matted against my skin—against layers of dirt and grime left unwashed, for water brings the chill and the chill brings death. Despite all this, my thin coat and worn shirt are soaked through and it takes me a moment to realize that it's sweat. The scent of filth becomes very familiar when it is your only companion.
The boy holds a small canteen to my dry lips and I realize I am parched; thirstier than I have ever been in my entire life. I want to take it in my hands and squeeze out all the precious liquid inside—fill myself with it, drown from the inside out and end the wild desperation flaring up inside of me—but I can't move my arms.
He tips the canteen and water dribbles into my mouth. I drink greedily, all-consuming. Too soon, he stops and I moan with disappointment. He shakes his head and speaks, but I don't understand the words. The chill has gripped me far too strongly to hear anything but a dull pounding in my head.
I say nothing, but he understands.
I feel a hand on my chin—small, thin, covered with ashes and dirt—and he pops something small into my mouth. I recognize the taste from distant days of long forgotten riches. Medicine!
No more water is offered and the bitter pill dissolves on my tongue.
The dull pounding persists and I close my eyes. He takes my fingers in the palm of that skinny hand and squeezes them tightly, like he can will the life back into my body. The touch is not fleeting or pitiable, but strong; it tells me I will survive, if only because he wishes it were so.
I wonder if wishes work better for him than they do for me.
He climbs into my cardboard bed, arranging the shredded paper and thin sheets around us like a cocoon. It should be a tight squeeze, but the svelte size of our bodies—all bones, no meat, no fat—leaves us room to spare.
We look at each other and I see the same strength in his eyes that I felt in his touch.
My strength leaves me before I can figure out the color of his eyes.
The world goes black.
The world goes bright.
His eyes are brown.
My strength returns.
We are seven years old.