Kite has never questioned the nature of her reality, then she begins to see things that aren't there and remember a past that she shouldn't have had. Her ex-best friend starts talking to her again, but only to creepily discuss death. Kite doesn't know what's happening. She just hopes the teachers won't give her the personality adjustment that other students whisper about.
Dust hung in the afternoon light. Everything was golden and shimmered slightly. It was a warm, warm light that Kite wanted to doze in. But Kite was pressed into a hard school chair. Her back was bent uneasily. The air was just cool enough to make her shift in her seat every so often, but not cool enough to prevent the lazy energy which caused her head to droop against her chest. Her eyelids slid shut. They felt as stuck together as two magnets. She clicked the pen in her hand, pressing the tip into skin.
The spark of pain roused her enough to focus her eyes on the blackboard just as Ms. Waters was gazing around the classroom. The teacher’s blond hair was smoothed back into a ponytail, her body pressed in a trim white suit. Next to Ms. Waters eyes and on the bridge of her nose were thin horizontal scars. Kite focused on the scars, struck by how she’d never noticed them before. Ms. Waters opened her mouth. Her skin drew close, tightening. The scars became darker, then wider. Within them, Kite saw sparks, like tiny fires being ignited.
Kite looked away. Her stomach writhed. It was a twisted mass of worms. Ms. Waters spoke, voice cutting through the stagnant air. She said, “I hope someone will be able to answer my question for once.”
Kite swallowed, glanced back. The scars were gone. Ms. Waters’s face was smooth with just a couple of wrinkles around her eyes.
Ms. Waters said the question. It was familiar. She asked it every day. Every day, it flowed from her lips into a garden that had gone untended for many years. For the first time, the answer unwound from Kite’s mind. She spoke, growing lighter as if a blanket was being pulled from her shoulders. Each of her words became a tool in a caring gardener’s hands.
The air chilled. The skin on her arm rose in little mountain ranges. Her breath skated out. For a second, she could see it as a rising white cloud.
She glanced around the classroom, wondering if the other students had felt what she had. Most were enraptured by some intriguing detail. The room darkened as clouds edged over the sun. Up until that moment, Kite had thought World Theory to be the most boring elective in school. She had been just like the other students. Something had changed.
“Very good, Kite.” Ms. Waters said. Her lips barely moved. Her words were gentle. Her eyes crinkled. She was soft as she spoke those three words, then she went hard again. Her shoulders became sharp angles. Her shoes clicked against the tile floor as she walked between the desks.
She stopped in front of Kite. “As many of you know, Kite here is not the best student in this class. She’s very close to being the worst student. She turns in barely legible homework. She rushes into the classroom right before the bell. And yet somehow, she answered a question that none of you, none of you, have ever answered. I want each of you to go home and write down why you think that is. And tomorrow…”
The bell tolled three loud resounding clangs, which covered Ms. Waters words. The sleepy students sat upright, stuffing their bags with their belongings. Many were out the door before the sound of the bell had faded. Kite remained in her seat.
Ms. Waters stood in front of Kite as the students scurried around her. “For homework, Kite, I’d like you to write about what changed that allowed you to answer my question.” Then she pivoted on her heel, ponytail swaying. She strode to the front of the classroom and grabbed her white leather briefcase. Without another glance at Kite, she walked out of the room.
Kite’s throat felt full. Her eyes itched like she might cry. She took off her glasses. She stared at them. She didn’t know why she was able to answer the question. It had slipped out after she had seen those scars… She pulled a cloth out of her backpack and cleaned her glasses.
When she replaced them and looked up, there were only two people left in the room. Ember’s eyes were on Kite. His skin was the color of sun-warmed earth, his hair a black nimbus around his head. He rolled his soccer ball under his foot as he leaned against the wall, watching her. She glared at him. He wrinkled his nose, rolled off the wall and out the door.
Mariposa’s eyes were also on Kite. From that angle, it looked like there wasn’t any white left in her eyes. There was just darkness. She still sat at her desk with her sandy-toned hands resting against her cheeks. Those cheeks were flecked with yellow and brown splotches. Her neon blue hair fell to her shoulders. It was lit up from behind like a sign to a night club.
“Have you ever died, Kite?”
Kite sighed, then tucked her notebook into her backpack. She slid the zipper closed and tossed the bag over her shoulder. Mariposa had barely talked to Kite for nearly six years. Kite swallowed, trying to push down the hope that Mariposa wanted to be friends again. “I wouldn’t be here if I had.”
“I’ve died five times. That’s once a year since we came to this academy.”
Kite dropped her bag, slumping back into her seat. The other girl was just having fun with her. Mariposa didn’t want to be friends again. “Really now, I’m surprised that you haven’t started decomposing with that rate of death.”
Mariposa slapped her desk. “Don’t get irritated with me.”
“You’re the one who’s hitting things, not me.” Kite slung her bag over her shoulder again, then headed for the door. “I don’t know why you’re talking to me and I really don’t care.”
When Kite looked back, Mariposa’s dark eyes were no longer on her. The other girl stared down at her hands. She looked so small in the empty classroom, so alone.
Kite bit the inside of her mouth, grinding the flesh between her teeth. She narrowed her eyes as she clipped down the hallway toward the library. Mariposa must have been taking out her angst on Kite. She shouldn’t let it get to her. But it did.
She paused in a panel of sunlight, then looked out the window. Leaves lashed against the sky in a strong gust of wind. Kite remembered the sparks in Ms. Waters’s scars. They had been fires in a night with no moon. Fires that had grown, pushing back the darkness. The periwinkle sky outside the window popped like a burst bubble. In its place was a rain of ash in a crimson sky.
A man screamed Kite’s name. The ash pulsed. Kite, Kite, Kite! A woman shrieked and coughed, joining the man. Kite… Kite! Their voices tumbled, rose, and became a harmony of love. Kite thought that she could see the two of them as dark smudges beyond the curtain of ash.
Then, Kite heard Mariposa’s voice, soft as a wisp of velvet, have you ever died, Kite? Kite snapped her eyes away from the window. Her heartbeat became louder and louder until it covered the screams.
Kite ran. She didn’t stop or look out again. She burst through the library door. It crashed against the wall. Kite panted.
Ms. Kӧttur, the librarian, looked at her with unblinking yellow eyes. She rose slowly from her desk, then leaned her elbows amidst the clutter of mugs and books. She arched her shoulders and back. Her eyelids lowered, the yellow irises becoming slits of glow.
“Running now, Kite. Do you want to be chased?”
“No.” Kite kept her eyes on the woman, trying not to look out the windows at the far side of the room. Ms. Kӧttur had sharp eyebrows and short black hair. It looked like she had cut it herself and badly. Kite’s eyes strayed. She didn’t hear her heartbeat. The overhead lights buzzed.
The trees and grass were just as they should be. No ash drifted through the air.
Kite’s shoulders lowered. Her breathing slowed. “I’ll go study now. No more running.”
“I hope that’s not a forever promise,” Ms. Kӧttur said as she settled back into her chair and rested her head on her arms. “You might need to run again very soon.”
“Yup,” Kite forced her lips up. “You’ll see me running tomorrow in gym.” Kite turned away. When she looked back, she noticed how, unlike Mariposa, the librarian watched Kite as she toed over to a table. Kite didn’t look back again. She collapsed into a chair. As the sun coasted toward the horizon, Kite studied the cracks and dents in the wood table. She traced the coils and twists which detailed the tree’s years.
When the library was filled with an orange light that bounced off every reflective surface, Kite got a book out of her bag. The words blurred on the page in front of her. All the sounds in the library felt amplified. The whisper of a page turning. The creak of a chair as a boy leaned back. Kite couldn’t concentrate. She slammed her book closed, the sound pounding in her ears.
None of the other students looked up. Kite took off her glasses. She rubbed the bridge of her nose. She threw her glasses back on and the book into her bag.
On the way out, Ms. Kӧttur stepped out from behind her desk, then rested her hip on it. She lowered her chin. “I just heard. Congratulations on becoming a candidate.”
“Thanks,” Kite said automatically, then her brain caught up. “I...uh, what? A candidate?”
Ms. Kӧttur’s eyelids lowered, encasing yellow. Her eyelids rose. “Lady Gold discussed ascension at the orientation. She would say that you’re much luckier than the rest of these drab sparrows.” The side of the librarian’s mouth curved. “I know that you work harder than them.”
“Ms. Waters doesn’t think so. She thinks that I’m one of her worst students.” Kite counted the squares on the carpet. “I just don’t understand World Theory.” Kite didn’t want to think about how Ms. Waters had called her out in class for turning in terrible work. She turned the conversation to Ms. Kӧttur’s strange words. “What did you mean by ascension?”
Ms. Kӧttur rubbed a hand from the spine of her cheek to the back of her head. “The gift of all worlds and the many life. You could become one of us.”
Kite squinted at the librarian. “A teacher? No thanks.”
The woman laughed. The sound rasped against Kite’s ears. “Remember Lady Gold’s words. They’ll help you understand. And don’t worry about Ms. Waters. She nominated you.” With those words, Ms. Kӧttur sauntered back to her seat.
Kite left. She didn’t look back this time. As she scuffed her shoes on the floor, she tried to remember what Lady Gold had said at orientation six years ago. Kite remembered gripping the sides of her chair in the auditorium, caterpillars in her stomach. She had been scared to be away from her parents for the first time… Parents? Kite was an orphan, like all the other students at the academy.
The vision of ash slammed into Kite’s mind. Kite breathed. She thought of air rushing between tree trunks, air brushing cinders out of her awareness. Kite felt the real brush of a breeze. Next to Kite was a door propped open with a rock. She recognized the courtyard beyond. She’d seen it through the windows of science classrooms, but had never been in it before.
She walked through the doorway. The sun was beyond the school building. The sky was colored red and purple. The vision started to slip from her mind.
Kite paced to a bench in the middle of the courtyard. She could see the gleam of sinks and work tables through the windows. She sat, brushing her hand on the concrete of the bench. There was just the wisp of breeze and rustle of leaves. Kite pulled a study guide out of her bag. She began circling the courtyard. She occasionally glanced down at the paper in her hand as she mumbled French under her breath.
On her eleventh circuit, Kite noticed a soccer ball under one of the rosebushes. It was shiny with red hexagons and black pentagons. It looked like the ball that Ember had been rolling under his foot earlier that day.
Kite glanced toward the door. It was still propped open by the jagged rock. She got down on her knees, causing a puff of dirt to rise. She reached under the bush for the ball. She stabbed her thumb on a thorn. She pulled it back out, cursing under her breath.
Kite wiped the drop of blood on her baby blue shorts, leaving a comet of red. She glared at the ball, reaching for it again.
“I never saw why my brother was interested in you until today.” Kite turned toward the voice, neck cracking at the sharp movement. Ember stood in the exit to the courtyard.
“What do you want, November?” She said, voice frosted over. Ember and Kite had simply been classmates, then Kite had started dating March. Ember had decided to share the hate reserved for his brother with Kite. Kite didn’t understand why Ember hated his brother so much. She had loved her little sister since she had seen her little body wrapped in wires in the hospital. Kite gripped the edge of her shorts. She didn’t have a sister or parents.
“It’s Ember. You know that.” He clutched the door frame, knuckles tightening.
“I thought that was your little sister.” Kite wiped her hands clean on her shorts. She stood. “You’re not the fires burning, you’re the leaves falling.”
“Did my brother say that?”
Kite looked at the rosebush. She shrugged. March said a lot of things that she didn’t understand. He was in a bunch of advanced classes that she hadn’t even realized existed.
Ember picked up the rock holding the door open. “Better be nice to me, or else I’ll let you stay here overnight.” He stepped out, holding the door open with his shoulder. “Now, tell me if my brother said that.”
“He didn’t mean it in a bad way,” Kite said, tucking her chin as she took a step back.
“Oh, he meant for it to hurt, alright. March wants to grind me up until I’m gravel under his feet. No one but me notices how vicious he is. Like a big old shark in with cute little fish.”
Kite’s brain felt tight as anger swarmed her mind. Right then, she wouldn’t have minded if Ember got the personality adjustment that the other students whispered happened to bad kids. She reached under the rosebush, uncaring of the pricks of pain, then grabbed the soccer ball. She lifted it then lugged it right at Ember.
It hit him in the arm. He dropped the rock. It landed on his foot. “Ouch!” He stumbled forward, allowing the door to move. It swung shut with a clang. And just like that, the two of them were locked in the courtyard together. “Shit.” Ember pawed at the edges of the door.
On the other side, the white lights kicked off into night mode. Red light shone through the window. The bell clanged discordantly seven times.
“Shit, shit! We have to find a way out of here.”
Kite flopped to the ground. “I’m not helping you do anything.”
Ember looked at her with wide eyes and a stretched face. “How long have you been here? You know, at the academy.” He gestured around them.
Curious, Kite answered, “This is my sixth year.”
“And you don’t know what happens at night.”
“I follow the rules and go back to the dorm at night.” She hadn’t seen the point in sneaking out when she didn’t have friends to sneak with.
Ember rubbed his hands over his face, sighing loudly. “I can’t believe I’m stuck with you.”
Kite shot back, “I can’t believe that you were playing around with the door so close to curfew. Besides, it’s not a problem. I’m sure a teacher will come along and let us out.”
“You don’t understand. Maybe that would happen if it were day, but it’s night.” Ember looked at the lip of the roof. He muttered, “We still have a half hour. If we can get up onto the roof…”
Kite studied Ember. His face was stiff, eyes wild as they darted around. Maybe she should be worried. “You’re right, I don’t understand. Why are you getting so worked up?”
Ember kneeled in front of her. “I want you to think about this as hard as you can.” His eyes were like dark pools of water. “Where are we, Kite?”
Again, the vision of ash slammed into Kite’s mind. Something had happened to her six years ago, then she had suddenly been here, carrying around a foggy head. “I… there’s something burning… painful…”
Ember smiled sadly. “It’s okay. Don’t think about it anymore. You’ll probably find out soon enough. Just know that, we’re in a place where rules matter a lot. It doesn’t matter what they are, if you break them, then the next day you’re different.”
Kite whispered, “That’s true?” This school had always been Kite’s reality. Despite that, there had always been a feeling of unease. She had grown used to living with the feeling. Now, it surged, making her tighten her hands.
“And unlike you, I’m in this shitty place because my family chose to send me here.” He walked over to where a drainpipe trailed down the wall. “Do you want to try to get out of here?”
“Sure.” Kite put on her bag. She tightened the strap so that it wouldn’t slip while she was climbing.
Ember shimmied up the drainpipe quickly. Kite had more trouble. She sweated, panted, and slipped several times. The metal shook beneath her, but held. When she got to the top, she glared at Ember. He pulled her up onto the roof with him. “You’ve done that before,” Kite said.
“I’m just a better sneak than you.” His face opened, glowing with inner light. His voice crackled. He was the ember that he called himself. Kite could see in him the same easy energy that March possessed. It was what had pulled her to March in the first place. Then he locked it up. “Let’s go. No time to lose.”
They walked across the shingles, Ember as if he was down on the ground while Kite placed each foot tentatively. The sky darkened. Night surged around them. When they got to the other side of the roof, Ember pulled her down. A teacher strolled on the path below them. They waited for her to become a smudge in the distance.
“I’ll go down first, then catch you if you fall. We’re going to have to move fast when you’re at the bottom,” Ember whispered.
Ember shifted toward the drainpipe. Kite grabbed his sleeve. “I have to thank you first.” The words felt awkward in Kite’s mouth, but she meant them. “You could have left me.”
He pulled his shirt away from her. “I still can.” Then he was gone. Kite peeked over the side of the building to watch him sliding down. He motioned for her to join him when he was done. She swung herself around, then clung to the drainpipe. She inched her way down, finding that it was more unnerving going down than up. When solid ground was under her feet, Ember pushed at her shoulder. “We have to run.”
They slipped into the trees on the other side of the path, then darted through shadows and bushes. They were almost to the dorms. Warm light soaked the darkness outside of the building.
A voice pierced the quiet, “You were a bad child, but it’s okay, you’ll be returned to the world anew.” A woman stepped out of the shadows, trailing a black cloak. Her face was hidden in a hood. Kite froze. Ember kept running. The woman threw out an arm. Ember tumbled to the ground.
In Kite’s mind, she saw Ember burning. Kite screamed. The sound was shrill and piercing. It echoed off the walls and trees, pounding in Kite’s ears. It was all she could hear, then it faded with the flames. Kite felt the blood moving through her veins. Her wrists tingled. Her jaw tightened.
The woman held Ember by the back of his shirt. Next to her were a series of floating stained-glass windows. The different colors were illuminated as if the sun was behind them. She flung Ember at the windows. He went through with a flash that left sparks on the gravel below. Shadows squirmed around the woman.
“And now you,” said the woman.
“No, Ms. Fox,” said Ms. Waters. She stepped out from behind the windows, then walked in front of Kite.
“She must dive through the painted windows.”
“That’s not for you to decide.” Ms. Waters turned, looking at Kite. Once again, Kite could see the scars around the woman’s eyes. “She’s a human candidate. Unlike the other, it could ruin her.”
“She won’t be ruined by venturing through once.”
“You know it will hurt her.”
Ms. Fox leaned low to the ground. Shadows rose from her back in spikes. “Many nights I’ve wondered what will occur if one of us travels through the windows.”
“I guess we’re about to find out.” Ms. Waters held out her arm. In it was a cloth-wrapped object.
Ms. Fox leapt forward, the darkness coming with her. The fight was quick, but fierce. It was beautiful in a way that Kite had never seen before. Ms. Waters was lit with an iridescent energy that shot out of her body in rays each time the two teachers collided. Ms. Fox grabbed and pierced Ms. Waters with her shadows. Ms. Waters tried her best, but Ms. Fox was in her element. Soon, Ms. Waters was on the ground with Ms. Fox’s foot on her back.
Ms. Waters whispered, “Please let me go through with her.”
Ms. Fox laughed. “You’re certainly welcome to do so.” She kicked Ms. Waters’s leg. Kite heard a cracking sound. “It might just be a little more difficult now.” Ms. Fox grabbed Kite. “As they say, ‘have a good trip.’” She threw her through the stained-glass window. Kite expected the window to shatter around her. It didn’t. She went through.
She saw Ms. Waters limping toward the window. Color splashed around Kite. She couldn’t see the world anymore. She was sinking into darkness. She couldn’t breathe. It was like Ms. Fox had tossed Kite into a pool. Kite struggled, but there was no surface to swim to. Everything was thick, enclosing. Kite closed her eyes.
She was slipping, sliding into nothing. She struggled to open her eyes again. When she did, Ms. Waters was in front of her. The woman was as tall as a building. She held a bowl with holes. She was attempting to cover the holes with her fingers. Water continued to leak through the holes, around her fingers.
Kite looked down. She was in the bowl with holes. She was the water leaking through. Above her, Ms. Waters was crying. Her tears fell into the bowl, joining the liquid dripping out. “Hold onto yourself, Kite. Remember who you are. Keep holding on.”
Kite didn’t have eyes anymore. Kite was everything around herself and nothing. She was blurring. She was energy, hurtling through the expanse. She was spread, then flattened as if by a dough roller. Her edges faded. She released herself.
There on the edge of forgetting who she was, Kite felt a glimmer of something else. Her eyes sharpened on a shock of white. There was nothing but air beneath her. She would never fall. She could leave behind that pained existence and become this other thing if only she gave in.
No. The word pulsed through the air. She was Kite and she refused to be anything else. She was herself, she wanted to be herself. Then there was pain. Everything hurt, like she was being pulled apart.
When the pain finally faded and she could think again, Kite found herself on the ground, gravel pressed into her cheek. She groaned, turning her head. Her head felt like someone had been driving nails into it. A boy stepped through the stained-glass windows. His body slid through as though the glass was liquid. He picked Kite’s glasses up off the ground, perching them on his nose. Kite wanted to smack him. Just when she thought that Ember could be a friend, he did something upsetting.
But his face was so open. His eyes wide as he peered around. The energy about him was different from before. He looked sad, rather than closed off and a little angry. Kite realized that the world wasn’t blurry. She could see Ember’s hair. It had become crimson.
“Kite?” Kite turned to a woman kneeling in a white dress. The woman had bandages wrapped around her eyes. The bandages were tinged with blood. Kite looked at the blond hair and sharp cheeks. She realized that the woman was Ms. Waters.
Kite opened her mouth, air puffing out. She licked her lips. “I’m right here.” Ms. Waters began unwinding the bandages from her head. Kite angled her head to see Ember again, but he wasn’t there anymore.
“You should go back to your room, Kite.” The bandages were loose around Ms. Waters’s neck. Her eyes glinted with the light from the stained-glass windows. “Just keep in mind that I wasn’t able to hold you completely together. You’ll have forgotten some things.”
“Thank you, Ms. Waters.” Kite was so churned up inside, she wasn’t actually sure that she was grateful. She pushed to her feet, legs faltering under her. The teacher looked away. Slowly, Kite completed the distance to the dorm.
When she got into her room, she gathered the necessaries, then went to the communal bathroom. The white tiles were dry under her feet. It had been hours since the last girl had washed herself. Kite went into one of the stalls, closing it with a shaking hand. She piled her dirty clothes on the floor, then pulled gravel out of her knees.
When she leaned under the hot water, her shaking increased. Her chest heaved. Water streamed down her cheeks. She sunk to her haunches, wrapped her arms around her legs. She rocked until her shaking stopped. Then she went through the motions of a shower as fast as possible. When she finished, she tucked a towel around her body. She covered herself more with a robe over the towel. She felt very cold inside.
She walked out of the shower stall and over to the line of mirrors. Her hand shuddered to her face in the reflection. The pink had been leeched out of her skin. She had become the color of fresh snow. She thought the wet tail of hair pulled over one shoulder was darker too.
Kite went back to her room. She dressed in her pajamas, then hid in her bed. She tried not to think of the terrifying moments of the day, but they kept pulling her into them. Fire cracking while voices screamed in the distance. Ms. Kӧttur leaning against her desk in a dark library, her eyes radiating while Kite was swallowed by the brilliance of nothingness, then spat out to see Ms. Waters sobbing with a hand over her eyes.
On the edge of panic and sleep, Kite remembered Lady Gold leaning over her. It was so far back in her memory that she had forgotten it. A cowl of interlocked gold coins hid the Lady’s hair. Her skin was brown with a metallic shimmer. Her eyes were outlined with black and bisected with twin scars that stretched from forehead to jaw.
She placed her hand on Kite’s forehead. It was as warm as a stone left out in the sun. Her coins clinked. “Her name is Kite.” Lady Gold held her other hand out. Ms. Waters stepped out of the darkness behind the Lady. She offered a large conch shell. Lady Gold reached in. She withdrew a battered bronze coin. She held it up to the single lightbulb in the room. “Hm.” The Lady’s mouth pulled tight. She twisted, then slapped the coin into one of Ms. Waters hands.
Ms. Waters gazed at Kite. Her eyes were wide but she smiled. She looked hopeful. Waves of coins undulated behind the Lady as she marched away. Kite was bathed in their reflections.
At some point, Kite transitioned into restless dreams. Her sheets wrapped themselves around her legs. Her shirt’s buttons dug into her skin. The room was too cold, too dark. She was jarred into a more wakeful state by a knock on her door. She stumbled across the carpet and tossed open the door. The dorm monitor stood there. She was a thick Asian woman dressed in a blue smock. Her mouth was covered by a wrap of fabric. Her hair was braided with twigs and flowers.
“You didn’t show up to your first class.” Ms. K’s muffled voice sounded like a bird fluffing its feathers.
Kite swayed on her feet. How strange that her mind and body felt so foreign to her, yet she still recognized Ms. K. The woman placed a hand on Kite’s shoulder, leading her back to the bed. Ms. K’s eyebrows were drawn together like she was worried. Kite laughed. The teachers were the ones who had done this to her. The woman patted the blankets into place around Kite.
“You may rest for the day.”
“So gracious,” Kite muttered. Ms. K placed her hand on Kite’s forehead. It was cold, but as comforting as a mother’s touch. Kite slid into the darkness of dreams. She felt cocooned in the warmth of the sun spilling through her window.
In Kite’s dreams, there was a pale man with a lumberjack beard. He led Kite through a dark forest to a brown-skinned woman. She blended into the trees. The woman pointed at the stars. She said their names. The man handed Kite plants. He told her which were edible. Both the man and woman looked at Kite with crinkled eyes.
When Kite woke again, she felt hot and restless. Her heart buzzed. She left her bed, taking the stairs up to the roof. She stepped out onto the concrete. It was hot. It hurt her bare feet. But the wind shifted Kite’s pajamas around her body, releasing some of her tension. She walked over to the edge of the roof.
The ground was a mash of green and brown. Kite didn’t feel scared of falling, like she had when she was on the roof with Ember yesterday. It wasn’t because she knew that the teachers could bring her back. No, it was because something new had been left within her when she went through those windows. This new part would never fear heights.
Kite sat. She dangled her feet off the edge. She remembered when she had been stretched thin. That had been much more terrifying than being a couple dozen feet off the ground. She dropped her torso against the slats of the roof. The heat burned into her eyes. As she lay there, sweat dripped off her body, darkening the grey roofing. She drifted, letting her energy leave her body with her sweat. An image overtook Kite’s mind.
Her arms reached toward a man with a craggy, bearded face. “Daddy,” she cried out. He lifted her into the softness of his shirt. She grasped the tussle of his beard, the hairs scratched her skin. His arm squeezed her tight.
She sat up, eyes flashing open. That had been the man from her dream. Her heart jolted in her chest. She heard Mariposa. Have you ever died, Kite? Whatever had happened last night seemed unimportant compared to these memories appearing in Kite’s mind.
Kite went back to her room. She changed into leggings and a purple sweater that overwhelmed her. She went to push her glasses up her nose. Her index finger froze on the bridge of her nose where the plastic should have been. She felt a little grateful toward Ember for taking her glasses. They wouldn’t be a physical reminder of how she’d changed.
Kite left the dorm. The sun filtered through the leaves of the trees to dapple on her face. The path made her feel uneasy. Just last night, she’d been running on it, caught in Ember’s desperation. The school was quiet. All the other students were in their classes. Kite slid in through one of the side doors just as the bell pealed.
Kite pushed through the sea of students, feeling like she was going the wrong way. She glimpsed a flash of blue hair. She threw her elbows out. A girl shoved at Kite. Kite thrust her out of the way, then chased that glimpse through the hallways. “Mariposa!” When Kite caught up, she was barely winded.
Mariposa looked at Kite with big eyes. She stroked the apple of Kite’s cheek. “It starts as a little bit at a time, then all of a sudden you look like something else and no one around you notices.” Mariposa’s eyes were glossy with tears. “You died.”
“Yes, well, no…” Kite considered the multicolored freckles on Mariposa’s cheeks. “It wasn’t like death.” The flames Kite kept seeing simmered at the back of her mind. “Can we talk someplace else?”
“Let’s go to my room. I’ve got some snacks.”
They were silent as they walked to the dorms. Kite felt hesitant to speak to Mariposa. She didn’t want to be rejected, like she’d been six years ago, but she wanted the connection that they’d once shared. They walked up to a door with a little cardboard bird taped to it.
Kite pointed at the bird. “What’s that?”
Mariposa flinched. “Just something Ms. K made, I guess.”
Kite stepped into Mariposa’s room. She froze. It looked like a dragon’s cave. Every surface was covered with shiny objects. “What is all this?”
“It’s my stuff.” Mariposa’s shoulders were loose, as if all the hoarded items didn’t matter. She swept a stack of framed photos off a chair. A wooden frame cracked when it hit the floor. Mariposa curled up in a nest of knitted and furry blankets.
Kite perched on the edge of the chair. “I need to ask you something.” She counted the freckles on Mariposa’s face. “Do you remember anything that happened before the academy?”
“What do you mean? We’ve always been here. This is our lives.”
“I mean, children have families. I don’t know why I’ve never thought about it before, but where did we come from? Who raised us before the academy?”
“We’re orphans,” Mariposa began.
“But even orphans used to have someone.”
“I… I’ve never thought about it.” Mariposa brushed her blue hair to one side of her head. Her chest puffed in little bursts.
“That’s strange,” Kite said. They were each quiet. Kite leaned forward. She swept dust off one of the framed photos. The photo was in black and white. It was of Ms. Waters, Ms. Kӧttur, and Lady Gold in front of a one room schoolhouse. All three were in simple dresses and had big smiles on their faces.
Mariposa tugged on the end of her shirt. “Have you told March about what happened?”
“Who?” Kite looked up, confused.
Kite finally knew what she had lost when she had gone through the windows, but she could barely believe that she’d forgotten a whole person, let alone the boy she was dating. “I don’t remember anything about him."
Mariposa snorted. “That’ll sure make the guy feel wanted.”
Kite cringed. She gripped the edge of the chair. “Do you think that your name was Mariposa before?”
Mariposa took a deep breath, staring straight into Kite’s eyes. Kite realized that the lack of white in Mariposa’s eyes wasn’t a trick of the light. “No. I know for sure that Mariposa is something that those windows are making me become.”
Why do you think they do that to us?”
Mariposa laughed. “The why doesn’t matter, Kite. They cut us down whenever they want, calling us bad children. They justify it because they know that we’ll come back.” She stood. “It’s not fair, every single year, it’s been my birthday.”
Kite murmured, “Your birthday is tomorrow.”
Mariposa thumped back into the blankets. “You can remember when my birthday is, but you can’t remember anything about March?”
“We were best friends.” Liquid churned in Kite’s stomach. “I don’t know what March is to me.” She didn’t want to think about it. She grabbed for something to say. “I’m going to get dinner. I haven’t eaten all day.” She looked back in the doorway. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Kite floated on the way to the cafeteria and through her meal. She was wandering around the campus, when she was stirred out of her head by a voice. “Kite.” A tall boy with shaggy hair loped toward her. His dark skin had splotches of lighter areas, like rock with the occasional snow drift. Kite’s chest tightened. She swayed on her feet. “You didn’t join me for lunch today.”
He didn’t look offended, but she couldn’t tell what emotion was on his face. She didn’t know if she should say that she couldn’t remember him. She was overwhelmed with hope, unease, and a longing that grew stronger the more she looked into those grey eyes.
The boy blinked at her, then stepped closer. He carefully took a lock of her hair in his hands. “You went through the painted windows.”
“How do you know that?” Kite pulled the hair from his hand. Her skull tingled. Her stomach spun. Kite blurted the words out before she could stop herself. “I don’t remember you.”
One of the boy’s hands flew to his chest. “What a knife you drive into me here.” He reached toward her. “I’m your March, my Kite.” Ah, the boyfriend that she had forgotten about. “Why don’t we go sit at our usual place and we can talk?”
Kite nodded, desperate to be honest while her blood swooshed through her veins in an almost painful burn. “Though I won’t remember it.”
They walked together. Kite kept space between them. Even though, her skin zinged the closer she was to March, he was still a stranger to her changed self.
They reached a metal table underneath an oak tree. The chairs were dusted with leaves. Kite brushed the leaves off. They sat. March held a green book with torn edges. Most of the name had been rubbed off. “Should I quiz you?”
“On a book I’ve never read? No, thank you.” Kite took the book from him, setting it to the side of the table.
March frowned. “It was something that we would do.”
“I’m sorry.” A wave of regret washed over Kite. She pushed it away. This boy would not make her love struck. Kite tapped at the table with her index finger. Her nail pinged as it hit the metal. “I’ve been wondering about something. Ember said that your family sent you here. What does that mean?”
March sat up, his eyelids slid down. “My dear Kite, I was born of minds combined in thought.”
Kite sighed. She rolled her eyes up. The sky was full of puffy teddy bear clouds. “You sound like Ms. Kӧttur. Just tell me what you mean.”
He smiled, eyes sparkling with reflected light. “To put it simply, I was sent here to be around dead humans like you.” He spread his hands, like the universe had just been created between them. “I’m a candidate to become a god.”
Kite felt cold even though her vision was going up in flames. “I’m dead? I’m dead…” She had suspected something had come before the academy, but she hadn’t thought it would be a previous life. March was a shadow beyond the inferno. “I died six years ago and I can barely remember my family.” Her tear ducts tingled. Wetness slid down her cheeks.
A hand rubbed the tears away. March whispered, “It’s okay, Kite. That’s what happens.” Kite knocked his hand away.
“That doesn’t make me feel any better.” The flames were no longer in her mind, they danced on the back of March’s hand. March swatted them, narrowing his eyes at her. There wasn’t any concern on his face. The ice inside Kite grew into a glacier. She liked the way March looked, splotches and all, but… “Are we really dating?”
March smiled. It wasn’t a full-on glow, just a glimpse into him. “I like you, Kite, but probably not the way that a human likes another.” He pulled her hand between his. The warmth eased some of the cold in her chest. “I am proud that you’re now a candidate.”
Kite pulled her left leg underneath her right. “March, have you gone through the windows before?”
“That’s not something I like to talk about.” His smile was sharp. Kite understood what Ember meant by saying that March was a shark. He leaned in close to her. The scent of blooming flowers and fresh snow wafted over Kite. “But for you, I’ll talk.”
Kite leaned into March as well. “Is there a way to convince the teachers not to put someone through the windows?”
“You’d have better luck getting an A in World Theory.” Kite glared at him. He shrugged, face blank. “Once they’ve decided to put someone through the windows, that’s that. It’s a judgement and a necessary part of life here. You’ll understand soon.” He smoothed the front of his shirt as he stood. “Now, if that’s all you want of me, then I’m leaving.”
Kite clasped her hands. She felt very small. “Yes, that’s it.” Kite sat at the table for a while. Her insides were still frosted. She shook. It wasn’t as bad as when she went through the windows, but was out of sorts. Her nails scraped along the metal of the table. Once the shaking had stopped, she returned to her room. She performed her cleaning routine, then got in bed. Her feet were cold. Sleep washed over her.
Kite opened her eyes to Mariposa shaking her shoulder. The girl whispered, “Can I spend the night? I’m scared.” Kite moved over, making room in the twin-sized bed. Mariposa slid under the sheets. She leaned her head against Kite’s shoulder. They breathed together for a while, listening to the crickets chirping outside the open window. “Why do you think you forgot about March?”
“I think I wanted to forget him.” Kite couldn’t exactly say why while her head was thick with dreams. Her breathing matched with Mariposa’s.
She thought that she heard Mariposa say, “I want to forget too.” She skated into darkness.
Kite woke to light falling in lines on her face. Ms. Waters sat in a chair next to Kite’s bed. She was in a plain white gown with a long piece of white linen around her neck. Her face was soft with a smile. “Good morning, girls.”
Mariposa clutched Kite’s shoulder. Kite said, “You couldn’t even pretend that today is a normal day for her?”
The smile faded off Ms. Waters’s face. “It might not be normal, but it’s not a bad day.” She looked away, fiddling with the linen fabric. “You’ll understand one day, Kite.”
Kite put her arm around Mariposa. “I’m tired of being told that.” Mariposa was quiet. Her freckles stood out on her skin. “We’ll go get breakfast, then you do what you need to with Mariposa.”
Mariposa lurched out of the bed. “No, let’s get this over with.” The other girl pulled a sweatshirt over her head. She straightened the hood and tucked her hands in the pocket.
Ms. Waters stood, revealing bare feet. “Ms. Fox will be helping us.”
Kite reared back. “After all that she did to us?”
Ms. Waters laughed, flashing her teeth. “Yes, it seems so.” They joined Ms. Fox in the hallway. The woman smelled like cinnamon and earth. She wore the same plain dress as Ms. Waters. It revealed a skull tattoo below the collarbone on her tan skin. Her dark hair flowed down her back. Kite thought she saw it moving in an unseen breeze.
Ms. Fox tipped her head at the two girls. “May your days darken as they will.”
Mariposa flinched away from the teacher. Kite tried to find animosity on the woman’s face. Her fingernails dug into the flesh of her palm. Pain bit. Ms. Fox’s face remained serene. She turned, then led the group out of the building. They stopped in plain sight of the dorms on a strip of lawn.
“We gather to witness a new beginning.” Ms. Fox lifted her hand. Beyond it, the stained-glass windows appeared. Sunlight poured through the glass, painting the ground.
Mariposa looked at Kite with wet eyes. “I tried. I tried so hard but I couldn’t stop being myself.” Kite thought of all the objects that Mariposa had hoarded in her room. All the stolen objects. Ms. Fox grabbed Mariposa’s arm.
Ms. Waters placed a hand on Kite’s shoulder, holding her in place while the other teacher hauled Mariposa over to the stained-glass windows. Mariposa’s expression turned sharp. “I was always jealous of you. So poised with good grades. I wanted to make you feel alone all those years ago. And you were, until your perfect boyfriend came along. It’s great you can’t remember him.” Mariposa gripped Ms. Fox’s shirt, but the woman pried each finger free. She pushed the girl through the window. Mariposa’s face crushed up in fear. She reached a hand out.
There was a flash of light. A humming noise which rose, sounding like hundreds of people singing in harmony. Then a colorful little bird flew through the window.
Ms. Waters let go of Kite. Kite was so empty inside.
Ms. Waters said, “She’s finally at peace.”
Kite whispered, “But she was so…” Scared, hateful, and frantic. What she said lingered.
The bird darted to the ground, then hopped from one piece of gravel to another. Kite kneeled before it. She scooped it up into one hand and stroked it with the other.
She stared at the bird, trying to find any sign that Mariposa was within. She found herself squeezing it. Her vision narrowed. She panted. This was the teachers’ faults and especially Mariposa’s. They could’ve just talked all those years ago. But no, she had to leave Kite alone. She had to make Kite so desperate that she turned to inhuman March for company.
Kite could almost see what would happen if she kept squeezing, a splash of red on the feathers in the palm of her hand. Ms. Waters said nothing behind her.
The bird squawked, tried to bite Kite’s hand. She could feel its heart throbbing against her hand. She reminded herself that this bit of feathers had been a person, had been Mariposa. She loosened her hand. The bird struggled out of her grip. Then, it flew up, wings glowing with the light of the sun. Up and up more, until it was just a fleck of darkness in the sky.