So this has been sitting in my desktop for awhile. I have had a lot on my plate so it never felt like a good time to put it up here. It’s still a lot raw and needs some tweaking, but I really needed a post.
In other news, I have moved half-way around the world, laid to rest the oldest person I know, lost a chunk of my soul, and not read a single book in almost a month. It’s a strange, horrid experience, all told…
But my dog gets into my bed in the middle of the night while the other two mutts snore like they’re racing. So that’s nice.
Here’s to The Endless.
“You can end it all here, Maya. You ready?
Someone on the bench sniggered and everyone else just sighed.
Maya nodded and touched the brim of her cap, lifting it and the helmet on top of it from her brow.
“I’m ready coach,” she said.
The coached nodded, but he looked away before Maya could meet his eyes.
Instead she looked out into the bleachers where the heat made everyone dance like flames on wicks. The heat was alive that day—a great, big cat, prowling about and rubbing its horrible self against everything and everyone. It was the bottom of the ninth and neither team had scored, but no one much felt like having extra innings.
Maya left the dugout and rounded the chain link fence as her teammate’s mumbled half-hearted encouragement. Someone said: ‘no pressure’ in a tone dripping with sarcasm. Maya didn’t bother to turn around to see who had said it.
She passed Nico Chan, a boy who’d just struck out and thrown his bat aside. The umpire at home plate clucked at him, but didn’t bother to give him the usual talking to about sportsmanship and humility—it was too hot for lectures.
“Looks like we’re in for another inning,” said Nico as he walked up to her. He was peeling of his gloves, the Velcro straps sounded like sizzling meat.
“I’ll go down swinging, same as you.” Maya said.
“Just try and get to first, Maya. Ken’s up next. He’ll end this.” Nico spat as he passed her.
“Bite me,” said Maya.
Maya looked back to the bleachers. They were made of recycled plastic and black iron that soaked up the heat like a barbecue grill. But the crowd sat through it. For a little summer exhibition game in the middle of nowhere, it seemed like the very definition of mass-insanity. The half of the crowd that didn’t come for the team was there because of a rumor: major league scouts were supposed to be in attendance. People eyed their neighbors like they had been told there was a killer among them.
Maya stepped into the batter’s box and lowered her bat to adjust her one glove. On the mound, Romwell, the pitcher, stood up straight, and relaxed his shoulders. He was a ropey, muscular teen with the kind of deep tan people got from working in the sun. Some teased him that that was why was so strong. Romwell didn’t just have power—he was also consistently accurate. The rumors of scouts swirled around him.
Maya gave the dirt a few meaty kicks with her spikes.
“Woah, woah, woah. You gonna put on your other batting glove?” said the umpire.
“I only use the one,” said Maya. She flexed the fingers of her one gloved hand. It was too big for her and her Aunt Sandra had to stitch an extra elastic Velcro band to make sure it was even remotely usable. It was as white as a boiled egg and the flaking leather looked like a cracked shell.
“Is—Is that a golf glove?” asked the catcher. He peered through his mask, is voice was muffled and cracking.
“It’s my lucky glove,” said Maya. “It was my dad’s.” She looked over to the bleachers where the hazy shape of her parents sat, their bodies wriggling like a mirage in the heat.
The umpire and the catcher said nothing else. They knew better than to question a ‘lucky’ anything in baseball. The catcher punched his mitt and the umpire called out:
Maya dug in, bent her knees, extended her elbows, took a deep breath and held it. There wasn’t a position she was more comfortable in.
Romwell wound up with his arms high over his head, his knee rose like a slow motion cabaret dancer—.
Maya didn’t even swing. The pitch was low and away, but even she couldn’t deny what a thing of beauty it had been. The ‘thwap’ in the catcher’s mitt was like a slap in the face.
The crowd in the bleachers clapped lazily—the wetness of their palms was almost audible. There wasn’t a tree within spitting distance or so much as a cloud in the sky, so no one applauded more than thrice.
The catcher threw back the ball. Romwell caught it in his glove and brought it to his chest in a fluid motion. He flexed his throwing shoulder, spat over it, and shook his head at the signal.
“PITCHER’S GOT NOTHING!”
Maya looked up to the bleachers and saw her mother shouting with her hands cupped around her cheeks. Her father was standing too, his hands clenched around an imaginary bat and swinging.
“SWING, MAYA PAPAYA! SWING!”
They stood out like fresh candles in the melting crowd.
This time Maya did swing. Her bat dinged loudly, like a coin in a tub. The ball fouled to the right next to an old gym. The crowd clapped listlessly again, though neither the pitch nor the hit really deserved it.
“COME ON, MAYA PAPAYA!”
“Foul ball. Strike two!” shouted the umpire. He passed a spare ball to the catcher, who threw it into his own mitt thrice before he sent it to Romwell’s.
“COME ON, MAYA PAPAYA! SHOW THIS BUM WHAT YOU’VE GOT!”
“YOU CAN DO IT, MAPPY!”
Maya could see her parents doing that dance they did when they were in the same room and a song they both liked came on. Her mother’s arms were in the air like a pair of synchronized swimmers legs while her father hopped like in an antelope sinking in quicksand. It was that special kind of embarrassing that was on a genetic level. But Maya smiled. She turned back to Romwell who was busy shaking his head to the catcher’s signs.
Finally, he nodded to a signal, spat, wound up and—.
The ball sailed high and to the right. The outfielders didn’t even bother to chase it all that much. It landed just outside the fence—the white disappearing into the dried, yellow grass.
“Damn,” whispered the catcher as he pulled his mask off.
“Home run!” shouted the umpire.
The crowd erupted into confused applause, having come for one impressive display and getting another. Maya jogged around the bases as the cheering grew—the heat was ignored as her team, their families and friends, came rushing out into the field, crowding home plate to welcome the game winner.
As she rounded second, Maya looked over to the waving audience, but her parents were nowhere in sight.
“Congratulations!” said Aunty Sandra. She lifted Maya off the ground and swung her around once. She smelled of sweat and a faint wife of her fading lilac deodorant. Maya didn’t mind and went limp in her arms.
“Hell of a way to end the game,” she said depositing Maya into a semi-circle of people who patted her on the back and ruffled her hair. Maya smiled without showing her teeth and moved away from the crowd. Aunty Sandra followed her.
“I wouldn’t have minded a few more innings,” Maya admitted.
“You sure showed that pitcher,” said Sandra.
Maya looked to where Romwell was standing with his dad—a taller, darker, balder version of his son. They were talking to a man with a thick mustache who was mopping his brow with a hand towel. There was a small circle of similarly disheveled men who were waiting their turn to say their piece to the boy who’d pitched nine impressive innings—but lost.
“Edwina’s bringing the car around,” said Sandra. “Ice cream?”
Maya shrugged and smiled weakly. She looked toward the scoreboard where the keeper was already taking down the two ‘1’s that had been placed in the inning and final score. She looked to the empty bleachers where the mirage-like haze had already faded.
“You’re a bit younger than I am used to,” she admits as she lowers her things to the foot of the bed. I had made it myself; the bed. I even tucked in the edges despite the fact that I left a note to the hotel staff that I didn’t want it done that way. If anyone from housekeeping saw it now, they would probably smile politely and ask if I wanted the sheets washed.
Maybe after this.
“I can afford it,” I tell her.
I watch her eyes flash to the night stand, the envelop of money is visible under the butter-yellow lamp light—the bills fanned out so she can count them with her eyes. One of the notes is old and crumpled—the green and blue of a vein through pale skin.
“I never doubted it for a minute,” she says sweetly, then smiles and kicks off her high heels.
“Do you mind?” she asks even as her toes begin making fist in the carpet.
“Not at all,” I say. “Sorry, what should I call you?”
“Viola,” she says.
Fitting, I guess. Her skin is as brown and supple as a violins’. And I laugh a little. I only stop because I worry I’ve offended her.
“It’s not my real name,” she assures me. She smiles without showing teeth but it’s comforting.
She’s good. Confident enough for the two of us.
“I take it you’ve never done this before,” she says, a slight tension in her voice. I do my best not to blush—as if I could control that. So I look away—at her things at the foot of the bed. Her dark case has already left an impression in the hairs.
“Are you sure you’ll be able to keep up?” she asks, her voice is more pleasant than it was a moment ago—challenging and teasing all at once.
“Is this about my age again? Because I assure you…”
“I am just saying,” she shrugs, the straps of her dress straining against her shoulders. “The people who call me are usually more—experienced.”
“You do this often?” I ask.
She doesn’t reply for awhile. Her toes flex.
“About as often as I need to,” she says, her eyes darting to the night stand again. “I just like to know what I’m getting into.”
“I know what I am doing,” I tell her, my voice cracking a little. I feel my knees trembling in their bony sockets, so I ease myself into a seat in the corner of the room and cross them.
“You’ll never be able to play like that,” she says jerking a chin at my crossed legs. I look down and see I’ve wrapped an ankle around a thigh and I’m gripping the armrests, my wet palms soaking into the fabric.
“You mean with my legs crossed?”
“I meant that nervous,” she says.
“Do you do this a lot?” I ask flexing my fingers.
She walks over and for a moment, I feel trapped in that corner of the room. I half rise from the chair and she stops, cocking her head to one side so her short hair, straight hair lolls like a tongue. She smiles and her teeth are so crooked they look straight with her face turned the way it is. I smile back at her but she blinks and I am sure she’s missed it.
“Can I see your instrument?” she asks, her lips moving slowly.
“Only if I can see yours,” I tell her.
Again, she pauses.
“At the same time then?”
I reach behind the chair and heft out my cello case. She goes to her things, puts the black case on her bed and opens it with a click and a snap.
Her viola is as beautiful and as dark as she is. She whispers something I don’t quite make out as she reaches into its felt nest. She lifts out the instrument, carrying it like some petrified bird of prey. Her hand moves up its neck as the tailpiece alights between her neck and clavicle.
“Ready?” she ask.
“Ready,” I say, putting my cello between my legs.
The room begins to vibrate with silence.
And then we start to play.
Just popping in to say that this happened:
And there will be more… here and on the blog arm. I know. I should just merge em, right? Maybe later. Right now I just want to make promises I may or may not keep and thank you for your (faux) patience.
"The 3 most destructive worlds a man receives when he’s a boy is " Be A Man."
I don’t usually repost but when I do…
HEY! If you’re just catching up to us well… you are too late!
Just kidding. There is totally an archive of our work. But this is the last chapter of The 9th Hour. We hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we’ve enjoyed tricking you into enjoying it. It really has been a labor of love and we have already talked about revisiting it. For now, we hope you have enjoyed the work we have shared and will have a drink on us tonight. For old time’s sake.
Special shout out to Susan for help with ALL the edits!
As a special treat, we commissioned Allison to do a little sketch for us. We hope you like it as much as we do. Until next time, Internet!
I hear the shout ring through the square. In an instant, the Hundred Handers close ranks. From the rooftops, I can see the circle of them tighten around Ferra and Nina. Their hands bend inwards.
I am frozen. My fingers grip the edge of the roof where I’m perched. Large black stains spread outward from my numb hands. A strange thought flits across my mind: will the stains still be there after the ninth hour of the morning? Will the human world have any evidence that I was here?
I can’t see what the Handers are doing. They’ve closedin too tightly; I can’t even see Ferra and Nina. I’ve never seen anyone counter-accused before. Who would be fool enough to call the Handers if there was evidence that they were wrong? I’ve always known it could be done, though. How do I know that? Where did I learn it? I can’t remember. I feel like I’ve always known, just like I’ve always known everything about this island. Just like I know nothing about anywhere else.
One hand pops up out of the thicket of them. It reaches towards the sky, palm up. Resting on top is the knife.
If I weren’t so numb, I think I’d be sick.
I can hear Nina’s screams from here. “No! I didn’t have it! They took it! She took it! I didn’t have it!”
Even from the roof, I can see that there’s a long dark smudge on the hilt of the knife. Me.
Nina must realize it, too. At the top of her voice, she screams, “TARNISH!”
Before I even know what I’m doing, I’m scrambling down from the roof. Obedient Tarnish. He comes when called. But it’s not that. I’ve saved Ferra, but I’ve also done what I haven’t let myself think about, even though I knew it’s what would happen since the moment I came up with it.
There was nothing else to do.
Papa Fabantou could have thought of something better. If anyone could have gotten everyone out of this situation, it would have been him.
If only he’d actually cared.
Nina is screaming about me, cursing me, telling the Handers that I’m the one they should brand. My feet hit the cobblestones and draw me closer to the ring of them. The watching crowd gets out of my way. They don’t know what’s going to happen. They don’t want to be caught near me.
“Get him! It’s his fault!”
Maybe they will. Maybe they’ll agree with her. I should be running away. Why aren’t I running away?
(Maybe I agree with her.)
I’ve almost reached them when I see the Hander holding the knife close its fingers around the hilt. A second later, the hairy mass shudders, and Ferra is expelled from the circle. She stumbles, coughing and shaking, clutching her satchel to her chest.
None of the Handers are paying attention to her. It worked. She’s safe.
I’d do it again, wouldn’t I? I’d throw this whole damn island to the Handers to get her home again, to where I can never see her.
She looks up and sees me. “Tarnish?”
The Handers don’t even flinch at the sound of my name. They don’t care what Nina says. The knife is hers, and she has it. That’s all they need to know.
“What did I just do?” Ferra asks. “What did you just do?”
I shake my head. The Handers inch closer together. Their hands stretch down into the middle of the circle. Towards Nina.
Nina stops shouting words at them and just starts screaming.
“They’re branding her!” Ferra yells.
Before I can stop her, she whirls around and throws her arms around one of the Handers, hurling it out of the circle. It hits the ground with a muffled thump, arm writhing. Ferra turns to grab another, but the one on the ground is already getting up. There are too many of them.
I stand there and do nothing as Nina’s screams turn into a sound I don’t even have words to describe.
Ferra is sobbing as she attacks the Handers, but nothing she does makes any difference. I realize, too late, that the group she has separated has begun to close in around her.
“NO!” I shout, and now I’m moving. They can’t brand her, too. She didn’t have the knife. She didn’t have the knife!
I yank handfuls of hair out of the Handers, but they don’t even pay attention to me. I throw myself against them. They don’t care. I’m not strong like Ferra.
She’s surrounded. I can’t see, but I think she must have fallen. She kicks at the Handers, and some of them stumble, but she can’t get away.
The hands reach down.
The hot-cold slime of the Handers curls around me again.
Tarnish is screaming and I see his spider-hands, unwrapped and pulling at every bit of black hair he can get at.
He fights. I fight.
Why can’t we ever walk away from things, Tarnish and I?
Somehow my strength isn’t quite what it’s been. I punch and kick the Handers, but I can hear whatever passes for their feet scrapingthe cobblestone ground. They’re gripping it with everything they’ve got.
The shadow of a hand passes over me and I look up to see the index finger of one of their hands inching towards my forehead. I try to pull my arms free by several hands have already coiled around me—pulling me down to my knees.
“No!” I hear Tarnish scream. “Let her go!”
“Tarnish!” I shout out. I try but I can’t look away from the finger as it draws closer. “Tarnish!”
Nina is making a sound that rises like a wave and crashes into my mind. The finger gets closer.
I close my eyes.
The touch is cold ash on the forehead.
My eyes are still closed but I hear the wind around us rise and swirl into a funnel.
Tarnish is screaming my name. I can hear the horror in his voice and imagine tears of frustration streaming down his face. I imagine him wiping them with the back of his hand, a grainy smear forming on his cheek.
It’s not as painful as I thought it would be.
There is a clap of thunder and just like that, the wind dies down and everything is bright beyond my eyelids.
Tarnish is beside me, pulling at me with his wrists. I open my eyes and look up at him. His cheeks are wet.
“Are you okay?” his voice cracks.
“I think so,” I say. “What happened?”
“They’re gone?” he says.
I sit up. The square around us is eerily empty and… clean?
On the far end, splayed out on the ground, is Nina. Tarnish helps me get back up and I give myself a once over.
“Are you alright?” he asks again.
“I think so,” I repeat.
We hobble, shoulder to shoulder, to where Nina is lain out like a dried starfish. We smell if a few steps away. There is a stink just like…
Her face is still young and drawn like before, but her forehead is twisted and depressed. The flesh is brown and the widow’s peak of her opalescent hair is now an ashen black. Her eyes are half open and her cheeks are wet too.
I can’t finish the question. Tarnish bends over and looks at her carefully.
“She’s alive,” he says. “Or as alive as can be expected.”
Tarnish on one knee and staring at Nina. I can see his throat swallow hard several times.
“You did this,” I whisper. “You made me do this.”
Tarnish turns to me and runs the back of his hand over each cheek. A sooty blush flushes his cheeks. He opens his mouth like he’s about to say something but then his shoulders slump, he swallows, and looks down and all the fight is just gone from his body.
“We did this,” I say almost to myself.
I walk to the other side of Nina and kneel down. Tarnish still isn’t looking at me.
I slip a hand under Nina’s neck and another behind her knees. She’s as light as a doll and I gather her up in one easy motion. Tarnish looks up at me, surprised.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
I get to my feet and start walking away.
“Where are you taking her?” he asks.
And I keep walking.
I follow Ferra. What else am I going to do?
Nina’s head lolls over Ferra’s shoulder. I try not to look at her, but my eyes keep finding the brand that will never come off. She might die, but she probably won’t. A sure death penalty is nowhere near as bad as a life sentence. No one knows that better than us. So most people survive the Handers’ brand, but they’re never the same. How can they be? No one will ever deal with them; most people won’t even look at them. Some people say that the pain drives them mad, but I don’t think that’s it. I think most of them just give up on themselves once they see that everyone else has.
Nina was so close to getting out of here.
My feet realize where we’re going before my brain catches up. I finally tear my eyes away from Nina and look at Ferra.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“Getting help,” she says.
“He won’t,” I say. “He wouldn’t. You were right about him.”
Ferra doesn’t answer me. I guess she probably hates me now. That’s fair. The worst part is, looking at her, I can’t regret it. Hate it, hate myself, forever and ever – sure. But Ferra’s alive and well, and even if it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done, I think that makes it the best thing I’ve ever done, too.
We don’t say another word until we reach Papa Fabantou’s warehouse.
Ferra pauses at the door and looks at me.
“This is, without a doubt, the worst place I have ever been,” she says firmly. “You don’t deserve this. None of you deserve this. I would get all of you off of this island if I could.”
I don’t know how to respond to that. I follow her inside.
Customers scatter at the sight of Nina’s brand. She isn’t even conscious yet and she’s already a pariah. Ferra ignores everyone until she reaches Papa and gently lays Ferra down at the foot of his chair. Papa is wearing the key around his neck. I can imagine the customers who just left already spreading the word throughout the island.
Papa barely looks at Nina. Instead, his eyes lock onto mine.
“Your doing, Tarnish?” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“A bold choice. But you saved your human like you wanted. I’m happy for you.”
He isn’t. I don’t think he’s capable of being happy for me. Or sad for me. Or feeling anything at all for anyone but himself. How did I not see it until now?
“You’re going to take care of her,” Ferra says.
“She isn’t one of mine anymore,” Papa says, still not looking at Nina. “I cast her out hours ago, before the brand.”
“Cast her back in,” Ferra says.
Papa smiles mirthlessly. “Did you tell her what the brand means?” he says to me.
I don’t answer. I’m staring at Ferra, who’s opening her satchel. Carefully, she removes two small, perfect earrings. They are silver ship wheels, studded with gems. I recognize the shape from drawings, though of course I’ve never been on a ship myself. Papa cannot hide the greedy glint in his eyes.
“One is to take care of her,” Ferra says. “You will buy the best medicine that you can find on this forsaken rock, and you will make sure her pain is cured and she is healthy.”
“And the other?” Papa says.
“The other is to complete her Bell. It’s almost done, right? I’m sure you can get the rest of the pieces with this.”
Papa’s eyes flicker. “Deal,” he says.
Ferra rolls her eyes. “I don’t trust you,” she says.
“Then why are you making me an offer?” Papa says.
Ferra looks at me, and I know what she’s asking.
“Because I’m going to stay and make sure it happens,” I say.
Papa laughs. “Did you forget? Your Bell is complete. You can leave.”
“I will,” I say. The pain in my head begins to clear for the first time since Ferra was captured. “And Nina will come with me.”
Papa narrows his eyes. “I can’t have a branded girl hanging around,” he says. “People will talk.”
Ferra says, “Just tell them you’re being benevolent. Like St. Ipso. That’s why you got his key, isn’t it? So you’d have some kind of unlimited wellspring of trust.” She pauses and looks down at the earrings in her hand. “You know that there’ll be plenty of money left over after you’ve taken care of her and finished her Bell. You’ll probably be able to buy out all of Dussa’s crew, for starters.”
Always one step ahead. I watch that hit home.
“It won’t be long,” Ferra says. “Once Nina’s well, she’ll be out of your hair forever.”
And so will I, I think.
Papa’s lips curl upwards. “It’s a shame you’re a human,” he says. “You would have done well here.”
Ferra stiffens. “Is that a yes?”
He nods. They shake hands.
Papa turns to me. “Take her in the back,” he says. “There are blankets there.”
“I will fetch help,” Papa says. “I made a deal, didn’t I? How can I renege, when I have you to keep me honest?”
The mockery shouldn’t sting, but it does. It will be easier to leave, knowing that he doesn’t care about me. But what does it say about me that there’s nothing holding me to the only home I’ve ever known.
Papa takes something out of his pocket and tosses it at Ferra. She catches it and holds it up. It’s a key, much smaller than the one around Papa’s neck.
“I figured you’d want to look at it,” Papa says.
My heart starts pounding. Ferra looks confused, but she picks Nina up and follows me to the back of the warehouse. There is a small, dark room cramped with all the necessities of living Papa pretends he doesn’t need: food, clothes, a large urn of water. In the corner, there’s a stack of blankets. Ferra settles Nina’s still body down on top of them and then holds out the key.
“What did he mean?” she says.
I point at a locked cabinet on the opposite side of the room. Ferra waits for more explanation, but when I don’t give it to her, she quietly unlocks the door.
There they are. All the Bells of Papa’s servants. Right in the middle, totally complete, is mine. It shines in the dim light like the rest of my life.
We both stare at it for a while. It doesn’t look real. I’ve never seen a finished Bell before.
“Thank you for staying,” Ferra says.
“You’re staying, too,” I say. “That jewelry was your ticket.”
She sighs shakily. “It’s just a little longer,” she says.
I close the cabinet.
We stand side by side outside in the cold night air. We are on a roof top overlooking the city we grew up in. The waves echo up the shoreline and a biting wind passes quickly over where we are. It feels like it’s been months, years that we’ve been standing there, a warm glow between our shoulders. I swallow hard and pat my satchel.
“So,” Tarnish asks.
“So,” I say.
“Will your parent’s be alright?” he asks.
“They will be fine. I have some money saved up. Just enough to help them retire. I’ll try and do most of the work—run the shop—give them time to enjoy—this.” I look around the rooftops and listen to the sea wind whistle. Tarnish presses his shoulder against mine.
“I am sorry,” he says.
“I know,” I say. “I am too.”
He swallows hard and we stare at each other out of the corners of our eyes. He opens his mouth to say something, but I cut him off.
“Will we ever see each other again?”
He lips his lips and bites the lower one.
“There’s this place called The Henge.”
“Never heard of it,” I say.
He looks up at the lanterns.
“It’s supposed to be a crossroads of some kind in the middle of some field. Stones everywhere. There’s supposed to be a Goblin Souk nearby. Probably under it.
“How do people get in or out?” I ask.
He shrugs and it’s quiet for a long while.
“Someone famous is supposed to be buried there too,” he says with a smile. And then a chuckle. And then he’s laughing. And I am laughing. And our shoulders are knocking against each other like clappers.
“I’d like to see that place,” he says when we both stop.
“I’d like to see it too,” I say.
“Maybe if you’re in the area we could…”
He looks at me out of the corner of his eye.
And I put my hand on give his hand a little squeeze.
We stand on the corner of my street. My parent’s shop is dimly lit but I can see a small light, like a candle, sitting on the sill of the second story window.
I recognize Dussa’s goons standing outside the door. Six of them. Some are sitting on the stoop. Others are pacing back and forth. They are all armed. The horned one whose mace Tarnish ruined is standing there. He’s got a new mace.
“How did they know we’d be here?” I ask.
“No clue,” says Tarnish.
“What are we going to do?”
“I’ll distract some of them,” he says. “Lure a few away. You can take care of the rest, can’t you?”
Before I can answer, the bell tolls in the distance.
“This is it,” he says glancing at me. He’s holding his hands up in front of him like he’s just washed them. Dust is swirling around them—a tiny dervish of filth gathers around all his finger.
“You ready?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“Okay, me first. You hang back and be ready.”
He looks at me. I stare.
“Thank you.” We say it at the same time. And smile.
He is a few feet away before any of them notice.
“Hey!” Tarnish shouts. He flashes his hands at them and a mist of dirt sprays into their face. The goons shout out and more than a few drop their weapons and drive their palms into their sockets. Tarnish turns for just a second so I can see a mischievous smile smeared across his face. And then he’s turned the corner and out of sight.
The goons give chase.
I run toward my parent’s shop. My shop.
The horned monster is the only one still there. He sees me and lets out an angry bellow. His new mace shines like a… a bell clapper.
I send him flying.
“Where have you been?” says my mother as I burst through the door. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
I shut the door and lean against it. I am tired and my satchel feels like it is filled with gold bricks.
“What are you wearing?” my mother asks.
I look down at my clothes.
“How was the delivery?” ask my father.
“I didn’t make it,” I say still leaning on the door.
They look at me, their faces go from shocked, to concerned, to annoyed as quickly as I blink.
“Why the hell not?” says my father.
“Language,” says my mother. She looks at me and frowns. “What happened, Ferra?
“I got distracted,” I say. And I smile, mostly to myself. “I’ll do it tomorrow. First thing in the morning.”
“You haven’t been out with someone, have you?” my mother asks the question in a wary but somewhat hopeful tone. My father crosses his arms.
“Would it be so bad if I was?”
They look at each other, their lips curled in resignation.
“I suppose not,” they say.
“I was out,” I say. “But I’m back now.”
Outside, I hear the echo of the ninth bell lull a bit longer before it fades out.
She said words like ‘a soft rain’ and ‘snowfall’ when she describe moments like sitting on the couch or baking while you slept. It was something you never thought about much until you found yourself using them to describe ‘reading an old book’ and ‘the sound of music boxes’. You sat on her stomach once, giving her a friendly pat on the head, right between her horns.
Her skin was like ‘sun-warmed gravel’, which you know is inaccurate but has become semi-permanent in your memory because you wrote it down on the back of a brown paper bag—so you wouldn’t forget. Even now, you curl and uncurl your fingers and stare at the grooves in your palms, trying to remember what you thought of the bridge or her nose in that one moment years ago.
She breathed fire, of course. They all did back then.
Aaand we are back, citizens!
Welcome to the 9th Chapter of The 9th Hour. This post is brought to you by the future post-apocalyptic-cyborg-zombie opus we are all writing in our hearts.
But seriously, folks. This is the 9th Post! We are almost at 40,000 words! KK and I expect to end this project in a fortnight… but we have been known to let our creative thumb-wrestling get way out of hand sometimes.
We hope that you have enjoyed all the work we’ve put in. It’s been a great ride and I have nothing but praise for anyone who will meet me so often in a dark booth at some dive to talk about what our imaginations have caught recently. We hope you’ll stay tuned (OR catch up) with us and our work.
This can’t be happening. After everything we’ve just been through, after everything we just did, this can’t be happening now.
But it is happening. It’s happened. She’s gone.
By the time I start running after her, it’s too late. The Hundred Handers are too fast and my brain and my legs are too slow. Everyone in the market is in my way, but none of them are looking at me. I’m surprised they don’t just let me go. I’m surprised they care enough to even step in front of me. Each silent block says, “Don’t get in trouble. Let it go.”
I can’t. I can’t.
But I can’t follow her, either. I spin around and let my feet carry me in a different direction.
Papa Fabantou will know what to do. He always does.
I run out of the castle and into the dawn. I don’t even pay attention to the light, despite how little of it I’ve been given in my life. I can’t pay attention to anything except finding Papa. My damp boots smack the cobblestones as I sprint towards the warehouse. Before I even get there, I’m already gasping, “Papa, help.”
I burst in the door. The warehouse is crowded with Papa’s customers. Every one of them goes silent as soon as they see me.
I don’t see Papa, but I hear his voice. “Everyone out.”
The customers don’t even grumble. They wrinkle their noses at me as they pass. I realize that I’m filthy. Filthier, anyway. For once, I don’t care.
“Come here, child,” Papa’s voice says. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
I follow the sound through the dark rows of crates towards the old wooden chair.
“They took her,” I choke out. “The Handers, they got her as soon as we got out of the crypt. I couldn’t stop them … ”
“Tell me everything.”
I obey. I tell Papa about the key, about Aziz, about the hand around Ferra’s ankle. I round another corner of crates and finally see him. His head is tilted on his rubbery neck, inching towards me, his hair dusting the ground.
“So you got it, then?” he says quietly. “You got the key?”
I nod. He holds out his hand. I reach into my pocket.
“Carefully,” Papa says, eyeing my hands.
I hook the key onto my tweezers and hold it out. Papa Fabantou snatches it away.
“It’s cold,” he mutters, but he doesn’t clutch it any less tightly.
This should feel good. This is the best thing I’ve ever done for Papa – the best thing anyone’s ever done for him.
“Papa, what about Ferra?”
He doesn’t lift his eyes from the key. “What about her?”
My skin suddenly feels icier than it did in the palm of St. Ipso.
“You … you said if we helped you, you’d keep her safe from the Handers,” I say.
“And I would have, if she’d made it back,” Papa says.
“She did make it back!” I say.
“Not everyone did, though, did they?” Papa says. “Dussa isn’t going to be happy about losing Aziz. This was supposed to bring about a truce between us.”
“Aziz was killing us,” I gasp, feeling the loss of air all over again.
“So you killed him,” Papa says. He finally looks up at me, and his eyes are hard.
“We … we left him,” I say. “We had to.”
Papa’s lips curve into a sad smile.
“I understand, my child. And that’s what you must do again.”
I back away. “No.”
“The human girl did her best, but she was lost. You have yourself to think about. Remember what I am about to give you.”
An impossible thought crosses my mind: I don’t want the Bell if Ferra is lost.
Papa narrows his eyes, as though he could hear my thoughts. “Try a little gratitude,” he snaps. “It won’t do to get in trouble now. Nina has already dragged my name through the mud tonight. We can’t have the island thinking all of Papa Fabantou’s crew are fools. Not now that I have the key.”
I turn around and stumble back through the boxes. Papa’s face follows me.
“Where are you going, Tarnish?”
I want to shout at him, but if I do, he’ll never let me leave.
“I want to sleep,” I say, my voice shaking. “Let me go sleep.”
Papa’s face falls back. For one of us to say that we want to sleep even more than we already are cursed to do – well, that’s how you know something is really wrong.
“Don’t you want to talk about your Bell?” Papa’s voice says from behind me.
“Later,” I say.
As soon as I get out of the warehouse, I start running.
Ferra was right. He’s just a beggar. No better than the rest of us, and worse, maybe, than some. I was a fool.
If my entire world is falling apart, though, I don’t have time to deal with it. Ferra’s situation is worse than mine.
The realization of what Papa is – what he’s always been – feels like a million panes of dirty glass have just shattered inside of me, but now I can see through to what they were hiding. I use this clarity to solve my own damn problems for once. I realize several things at once.
One, I still have Nina’s knife, tucked into my belt.
Two, I know where Nina is right now.
Three, I have one chance to get this right.
Someone is screaming. I am not sure if it’s me or someone else in the crowd. Everything around me is zipping by and I try to grab a hold on something, but something around my chest tugs and my hands snap shut around my satchel. I curl into a ball and wait to stop.
The smell gets worse and worse.
It’s just standing there next to another one, its boneless arms wriggling like the centipedes on the mass of coarse, inky-black hair. I look around for Tarnish, but they’ve pulled me pretty far away I am not even sure I am in the castle anymore. The crowd has given the Handers a wide berth, but they see the one that’s got me and they look scared.
“Bastard,” I say as I get to my feet.
I punch the one holding me.
It’s not a particularly good punch, nor is it quick. I aim for its middle and the Hander doesn’t even try to dodge it. My knuckle barely register’s the blow until the mass of black is flying back. The coarse hair makes a snapping sound and stings bit—like hitting brittle urchin spines. It flies farther than I pushed Nina. It crashes into a stand of fruits and keeps going—a kiosk of pots, fish, glasswear. There is a white, hot pain that sears my ankle and for a second I think I am free.
But its hand is still there, the coiled length of the skinless flesh snakes away from me like a garden hose. The crowd is screaming and running away from me.
At least someone is still afraid of me.
I grab an abandoned cart full of scrap metal, just as the other Hander skitters towards me. Its hand snaps around my wrist and the icy-hot pain runs up my arm, but I take the car and swing it like a great, big bat. I smash the creature into a wall and everything erupts in a cloud of splinters and rusty metal.
Again, the pain. This time it’s in my wrist, only now it feels like I’ve broken it. The Hander isn’t moving much under the pile of debris, but its hand is still wrapped around my wrist, the flesh drooping like a grotesque party streamer. I pull at it but it feels like I’m trying to rip my own skin off. My ankle is still throbbing like it’s been punched. I limp to one side and pull at the hand on my wrist again.
How do I get these things off?
Another hand, pink and slimy, snaps at my other wrist. The pain makes me bite my tongue and I taste blood. There’s enough of it to spit out. I look up to where a Hander stands on top of a low awning. Another skitters up beside it.
How many of them are there?
“Come and get it!” I shout.
I jerk my arm hard at the new one, coiling up the arm as I pull towards me. It makes a sound like a hissing, scratching cough and flops towards me. I bring my elbow up and thrust it out.
It connects with a crunch.
And I feel it in my ribs.
I drop to one knee, gasping for air, clutching at my breast. The pain. I can feel what they feel.
Another hand snaps at my other ankle—icy hot pain. I grab a shard of scrap and stab it. Again, the new Hander makes the screeching cough. The boneless arm bleeds purple, but it doesn’t let go. I cry out in pain. My ankle feels like it’s been nailed to the ground.
There are still people looking at me. I can see them, hiding behind stalls and behind makeshift counters. They look scared and confused, but mostly sad—for me? They pity me.
Another pair of Handers appears around a corner. They are so close their stench hits me like a wave and I stumble back. Damn it, they smell awful!
One of their hands coils around my neck and other loops around my waist. I swing at them with my fists. They screech-cough and I feel the pain of my own blows. The slime from their arm is making my clothes into a second skin. The hair jacket Juniper gave me feels like it’s shrunk. My vision is all blurry. I wriggle and feel the Hundred Handers get tossed about, even as they close in around me.
“You’ll never take me,” I say, but my voice sounds like a prayer. I say it again and again, as loud and with as much force as I can muster. I scream it even as the unholy stench of the monsters fills my nose and mouth—it’s like the rot of it all is seeping into my other senses.
I hear my name like it’s from far away. The din of the crowd is nothing but a hum in my ears. I try to look around, but all I see is the briar patch of black hair and a small halo of night sky above me.
It sounds like one of my parents. Was it my mom or my dad? I can’t tell.
Are they finally going to wake me up from this dream? Have I got a fever? Maybe I’m just delirious and struggling against my blankets. Maybe I’ve just been a bit sweaty and that awful smell is me in need of a bath.
That’s it. I’m sick. I’m home and sick in bed. Someone is in the other room making me soup. Maybe they are coming in to ask how I feel and tell me that all I need… is a bit of rest….
I close my eyes.
We all have our hideouts. It’s a crowded, noisy, nasty corner of the world that we live in, so we all have somewhere to go where we can be alone. Of course, we’re never really alone. Someone can always see you. It’s just a matter of if they care.
Papa Fabantou knows all our hideouts. His eyes are everywhere. I know because I’ve been his eyes. We report back to him, and then he can send us to fetch each other whenever he needs us. If Papa Fabantou has a hideout, I don’t know about it. He doesn’t seem to ever need to be alone.
Nina does, though. After losing her hair – losing everything – that’s where she’ll be. It’s a spot close to the water, on one of the narrow strips of beach the humans use for pleasure. They leave books there sometimes, or sunglasses or the remains of food. Our kind hardly ever goes there. One toe in the water without a completed Bell means death. Nina always seemed to like it there, though. At least, she’d be particularly snappy with me whenever Papa sent me to tear her away. When I was younger, I always used to think that Nina was so much tougher and surer than I was, but I don’t think she ever gave up the kind of belief we generally only have as kids: that there’s something waiting for us across the water, and we’ll get to it soon.
I don’t want to see the water right now, but luckily I don’t have to. A Hander will have already come for Nina to summon her to The Trial. The fountain is clear across the island from Nina’s hideout, though, so hopefully she’s still on her way. I dart through the streets, calculating as I go, trying to predict her path.
It’s half luck, really.
There is one thing on my side: the absolutely foul smell of the Hundred Handers.I burst out onto the road I think she’ll be taking, and a stinking string of hair floats by me. There they are up ahead – the Hander leading and Nina dragging her feet behind. The boneless fingers of the Hander keep twitching. If I thought they had personalities, I’d think it was impatient.
The street is lined with people, curious but keeping their distance. Now that the Hundred Handers have found their mark, everyone seems less afraid. If it were any other night, I would be, too. I’m standing right out in the open after these things have been chasing me all night, and now it couldn’t care less. Even though I’m the one with the knife.
I follow her up the road. I can feel the crowd’s eyes on me, but there’s no point in trying to remain not unseen. Everyone is scrutinizing Nina’s every move right now. Luckily for me, she knows it, too, and has compensated by wrapping herself into a huge hooded sweater. Gaping pockets hang in the sides.
I run towards her, working the knife into my sleeve as I go, trying to touch it as little as possible. It’s going to be a bit grimy, but hey, it’s an allegedly stolen object. A little wear and tear is expected. Besides, I’m not the one on trial.
“Nina!” I shout.
She whirls around. Half of the crowd pretends they weren’t watching. The other half watches more avidly.
I run up to her. The Hander halts, rank hair shifting in the breeze. I give it one glance. No eyes, no face. No way of telling if it knows what I’m doing. So I just can’t think about it, that’s all. Nina’s eyes are what I need to worry about now.
It’s just sleight of hand. I’ve done this hundreds of times.
But this time it’s important.
“What do you want?” Nina spits when I reach her.
“Don’t do this,” I pant. It’s the obvious thing to say.
She laughs and jerks her head at the Hander. “Don’t have a choice,” she says.
The handle of the knife rests in my wrapped palm. I shift, and so does the Hander. I freeze.
Nina looks me up and down. “You look awful,” she says. “Worse than usual. What happened to you?”
It’s not a real question. She doesn’t actually care what happened to me. She’s just stalling for time. She doesn’t want to go to the trial, or at least part of her doesn’t.
I’d feel bad for her if I had the luxury.
“She doesn’t deserve this,” I say.
“You’d choose a human over your own kind?” Nina says, but her voice is dull. She’s going to walk away from me soon.
I grab her sweater. “It’s not her fault what happened to us!”
Nina jerks away. “It’s got to be someone’s fault!” she cries.
She’s like a little kid in that way, too.
Nina turns on her heel and begins to walk again. The Hander lingers for a moment, flexing its wrist. I shiver.
Whatever it’s thinking, it keeps to itself. After a moment, it follows Nina.
And the knife in her pocket.
I can’t celebrate yet, though. There’s one thing left to do. I disappear into the crowd, zigzagging at random until people lose interest. Then it’s straight to a mercifully distracted fabric vendor. A bolt of plain white cloth goes straight under my coat without anyone looking twice.
Now I have to go where I always go when I want to be alone. The rooftops.
My eyes feel open, my ears ring hollow but hear nothing else, and I my tongue feels like someone cut it off.
I wake up blind, deaf, and mute.
But I am awake. At least I think I am.
Am I standing? Why am I standing?
I fall over, or at least, that’s what it feels like. It’s more like I’m watching myself fall over, but there’s no pain or the texture of dirt where my skin touches the ground. Can’t I feel anything either?
“Put up quite a fight, didn’t you?”
And just like that, I am awake, fully and completely, with my face in the dirt.
Nina’s voice echoes defiance despite the trembling.
“Nina? Where are we?” I ask. I try to get up, but my arms and legs flop around and feel—boneless.
I look down at them. They’re bruised but otherwise whole.
“You look worse than Tarnish,” she says.
“Tarnish? Where is he? What have you done to him?” I am on my knees now, bent over and looking around. The Hundred Handers, at least a dozen of them, have formed a large circle around the square by the fountain. We’re back where Nina called them down. Two of them stand behind her like body guards.
I hear Nina scoff as she takes a few steps forward. She’s wearing this awful coat with the hood pulled back. Her shornhair sways sadly from side to side as she comes closer.
“Where is he?” I say, trying to make my voice threatening.
The lights of the permansios in procession spirals over us and everything is even and beautiful even if it feels tense.
“WHERE IS HE?”
“He’s gone,” says Nina, shaking her head a little. “He did meet me to beg for your life, though,” she adds. “But that’s about it.”
No. It wasn’t.
“He begged for mercy, for you. And when I said ‘no’ he just stood there. Shaking. The next time I saw him, he was running away,” she gestures around us, “from me and all this. As far and as fast as his grubby legs could take him.”
No. He wasn’t.
“You see, these Trials, they’re really serious.”
She’s only a few steps from me now. I could get up and push her. Or punch her. I could… I could end her.
“And before you decide to do anything, The Trial has already started. If you do anything to me now, your life is forfeit.”
The Bell tolls.
Once, twice, thrice. Four times. Five. Six.
Damn it. How long was I asleep?
“So, let me explain how we’re going to do this,” says Nina. “And listen carefully because I don’t think there will be time for me to repeat myself.”
Her voice is filled with self importance.
Where is Tarnish?
I look at the Hundred Handers around us. Just beyond their black mass, I can see a few people standing far away. Some in higher buildings, watch us from their homes or shop windows. A few are tall enough to see right over the crowd.
Where is he?
“You see, the Hundred Handers are the law of the land,” Nina says. “We’re supposed to call them down to settle disputes. If someone takes something, they do the punishing.And they do some pretty gristly things to the offenders. But do you know why no one ever, ever call them?”
I look at Nina. I look right at her and think about grabbing her and threatening her life unless the Hundred Handers let me go.
“Enough with the monologue,” I say. “Tell me what you want.”
Her eyes grow big and wild. She points at my satchel.
“No,” I say. I put my hand over it before she can say a thing.
I haven’t looked inside my bag in awhile. I practically forgot I had it while we were in the catacombs. Not it suddenly feels like I’m carrying a sack of bricks strapped across my shoulders and chest.
“These are my parents’,” I say. “We—they need them. I am not going to give them up to some… thief.”
Nina sighs. She bends down so that she’s crouching right in front of me. Her face is still a little bruised and she looks tired and alert all at once.
“You do know you’ve been with a thief the entire night, haven’t you? I’ll admit it. Tarnish is easily a better thief than I will ever be. Maybe the best on the entire island,” she says. “He was probably only helping so he could get what’s in that box of yours. And now that he knows he can’t have it, he’s gone and run away.”
No. He hasn’t.
“You can’t have them,” I say tightening my grip on the bag.
“You should have let me finish my story,” says Nina warily. “You see, no one calls the Handers because if you ever make a false report or try and pull one over them, and they find out? Well, they punish you too. The finger pointers and the ones being pointed out, kssssss!”
She grips her fist in front of our faces and makes a hissing sound.
“They’re a double edges sword, human girl. Now, I accused you of stealing from me, but you haven’t really got anything of mine, have you? Unless you have my knife. Ah, didn’t think so. So without proof, the Handers will just have to do what they do to both of us. They will do something that will hurt so bad that you’ll wish you’d been gilding.”
I swallow hard. Then I stand up, slowly and carefully, until I’m looking down at her. She looks up at me and gives me a smile that passes for ‘impressed’.
“Go to hell,” I say.
“Where do you think you’ve been all night?” says Nina. There’s that wild fire in her eyes again. She stands up and stares me down. “Stop pretending you haven’t spent the day—the one day you’ve been here, fighting for your life. It’s like that every day here. Every. Day. And I want out,” she says. She’s trembling with anger. Or frustration. Or both. “I want out. It’s all I’ve ever wanted. And I can offer you the same.”
I’m more surprised than I mean to be, but Nina sees it and presses on.
“If you give me what’s in that bag, I will take the blame. I’ll tell the Handers I made the mistake. They’ll punish me and let you go,” says Nina. She’s talking quickly, as if slowing down or stopping would mean losing her nerve.
“What? Why would you…?”
“Because I want what’s in that box,” she cuts me off. “I can sell it and finally get off this rock. I am so close. My Bell is practically finished. I can already hear it. There hasn’t been anyone whose left the island in decades! Maybe centuries! But I am going to do it. Me! All you have to do is give me what’s in there and you can forget this ever happened.”
Hah! That would be some trick, wouldn’t it?
“You said they do things—they would hurt us—you. Why would you make this deal?” I ask.
“Because I spent my entire life wadding through this,” she gestures around us again. “I have spent my entire life fighting and begging and scheming. And I can finally see the end of the tunnel. And all I have to do is take a bit more. A bit more and then I’ll be free.”
“What will they do to you?” I ask. “To us, if I say ‘no’.
“They’ll brand us,” she says. She clenches her fist again and makes the hissing sound. “I’ve seen them do it. They will burn our faces. Our foreheads. Badly. And if the pain doesn’t drive us mad, we’ll be branded for life. A sign that no one should ever trust us for as long as we live.”
I swallow hard again. Nina’s eyes are still fixed on me even as she paces back and forth. She’s serious. She’ll do anything.
“Nina, I can’t—.”
The slap is unexpected. Nina’s hand flashes in front of my face. The pain is minimal but my eyes feel like a light has been turned on a dark room.
“Do you have any idea what I am offering?” she screams. “I am giving you one chance, human. One. If you don’t take it, I am going to let the Hundred Handers burn you until you can’t remember who you are. Then, I’m going to take that box from you and walk away!”
My eyes are still adjusting, but I see it.
He is running across a roof top just over Nina’s left shoulder. He’s going fast, with a white banner streaming along behind him. I see the grimy words smeared across a canvas but he runs out of roof and has to let the banner go slack.
I missed the first two letters.
Nina turns around to see what I am looking at, but Tarnish is gone. When she sees nothing, she looks back at me. Thecolor is drained from her face.
“Last chance,” she says. “If you don’t give me what’s in that bag, I will tell the Handers.”
‘Cuse Her? What did he mean?
Did he mean ‘Excuse her’? Does Tarnish want me to forgive Nina?
“I forgive you,” I say.
“What?” Nina says angrily.
“I forgive you, Nina!” I shout it so that the Hundred Handers can hear it, if they can even hear.
“What are you talking about?” says Nina.
“I excuse you,” I say.
She is shaking her head but her eyes still stare me down.
Nothing is happening. I look back over her shoulder, but Tarnish is nowhere in sight.
I look at Nina again. Her mouth hangs slightly open and her shoulders are tense, like she’s getting ready to lunge at me. Her ugly coat flaps in the wind with…
A muddy, oily, elongated stain in the pocket of her coat. A stain in the shape of…
“The knife,” I whisper.
“Handers!” Nina shouts. “Lord of Order and Masters of—-.”
“I ACCUSE YOU!”
I shout the words so loud I scare myself. I raise an arm and point at Nina.
“Nina of Ipso, I accuse you of false testimony. I did not steal your knife. You have it!”
Her face contorts in rage and she charges me. But she stops mid jump; her body jerks back like it’s tangled up in marionette strings. She looks down at her feet and I do the same.
A pink, boneless arm, with hideously long fingers, is wrapped around her foot.
So. I came up with this on a bus trip that should have been 4 hours but ended up being 9 hours and change. Silver lining?
You always have a knack for sitting across interesting looking people. Sometimes their noses look broken or they’re missing fingers. Sometimes they only have one eyebrow or literally two left feet. Their tattoos are palindromes or a poem with funny acrostics. More than twice, you have sat across from someone with different colored pupils.
Today is simple. The girl across from you has nice earrings. On her left lobe hangs a tiny padlock, on her right, a tiny key. They dangle like ornaments on the rear view mirror of a car driving through a jungle.
“Do those work?” you ask. You point with an index finger, wagging it like a compass needle that isn’t quite ready to tell you where north is.
“My ears? They sure do!” says the girl. Her tone, you think, is playful if not a little sarcastic.
“No, I meant your earrings,” you say.
“What was that?” she says. She cups both her ears and squints at you.
“I said…” but you stop yourself. Because you’re not sitting in a particularly loud place. And because she is smiling at you like she’s just hit you with a water balloon.
You ask if she thinks herself charming.
She asks you if that’s a rhetorical question.
So you go home with her. And she makes you tea and you talk about her plans to make a board game about the Cold War.
“You’re not some crazy person who’s going to bury me in your floorboard are you?” You say this even as she removes your clothes.
“This is the third floor,” she says pragmatically.
“The walls?” you offer.
“It’s a bit late to be asking that now, don’t you think?”
And you do.
Even when she’s putting you in her wall.
AND WE ARE BACK!
KK and I are back from our hiatus! We’d tell you all about it but we made a promise to the gnomes and we intend to keep it. After all, what is a promise worth if you don’t have honor.
Seriously. We want to know. For eBay.
Anyway, here’s the 8th chapter of The 9th Hour. And for the record, since no one has been asking… there will be no prizes for the 9th chapter of The 9th Hour.
We hope you enjoy! Because we can’t return any of this stuff to the shop.
The freezing statue looms in front of us, its twin problems seemingly unsolvable. Aziz doesn’t believe Ferra when she says how cold it is, so he tests it himself. His hiss of pain is momentarily entertaining but remains unhelpful. I stare at the statue’s hands.
“It’s probably in the bell, right?” I mutter. “That makes sense for a key. Our Bells are our keys off the Island.”
Ferra, still nursing the cold-seared skin on her fingertips, looks thoughtful.
“Could be,” she says. “I wonder, though … ”
“What exactly is it that we’re doing here?” she says. “I mean, we’ve gone through all these impossible tasks, and for what?”
“To get the keys,” I say.
“But why? What’s so important about the keys?” Ferra says.
“They belonged to Saint Ipso,” I say. “I mean, they were actually his.”
“Right,” Ferra says. “They’re important because of what they are, not what they do. As far as I know, they don’t actually do anything at all.”
I consider this. She’s right. Papa Fabantou never said anything about the keys doing anything.
“Everyone knows how hard they are to get, though,” I say. “I mean, you can’t help but admire someone who has the keys.”
“Unless you’re the one who actually got them,” Aziz grumbles.
“That’s just it, though,” Ferra says. “The keys give you prestige, but only if you’re desperate enough to go through all this. And that kind of desperation … it kind of makes you no more than a beggar.”
“Papa’s not a beggar,” I say reflexively.
Aziz laughs. “Sure he is. We all are.”
I am, sure, but Papa Fabantou? He takes beggars in. How can he be one himself?
“I think the human’s right,” Aziz says.
I look at Ferra. She looks confident, even if I’m not.
“Okay,” I say slowly. “But that still leaves us with the problem of how to get the keys if you can’t climb the statue.”
Ferra takes a step back and looks from me to the beggar’s bowl and back again.
“I can throw you,” she says.
Aziz bursts out laughing.
“All the way up there?” I say, my voice squeaking.
“You’re so light,” she says. “It wouldn’t be hard.”
“Why can’t you throw Aziz, then?” I say.
Aziz stops laughing.
“You’re lighter and smaller,” Ferra says. “Plus we don’t know what the cold would do to his feathers, and we need those. You’re all covered, even most of your hands.”
I’m still not convinced.
“And Aziz is afraid of heights like a child,” Ferra says.
Aziz squawks like a parrot.
“But he can breathe,” I say. “If you throw me up there, what am I supposed to do?”
“Act fast,” Ferra says.
“And then, what, jump?”
“I’ll catch you,” Ferra says. She leans in close to my ear. “The real reason you have to do it instead of him is that I don’t trust him. I trust you. So trust me back.”
For a second, I think Aziz has taken the air away. Then I realize I’ve just forgotten to breathe. I swallow hard.
“Yeah, okay,” I say.
“Hold up,” Aziz barks. I can tell he didn’t like Ferra’s comment about his fear of heights. “If we let him get the keys, he’ll wreck them.”
I take my tweezers out of my coat and scowl at him.
“That settles it,” Ferra says briskly. “Come here.”
She gathers me up in her arms. I curl up, trying to make myself easy to aim. She swings me back and forth, getting her momentum going.
“Aziz!” she says. “Get over here.”
He limps closer.
“Take a deep breath,” she says.
The next thing I know, I’m flying.
It turns out that being launched through the air is a very disorienting experience. Ferra’s aim is true, though. I land painfully on my shoulder in the middle of the beggar’s bowl. The intense cold of the metal radiates through my clothes, even through my shoes. I scramble up, my breath spilling from my mouth in a thick fog.
There is no air around me to replace it.
Chest already aching, I stare down at my freezing feet. There between them is a single key. It’s fairly unremarkable as far as the design goes, but it is scored all over with letters in an old language I cannot read. Maybe if I could, I would be sure this key was the right one, but for all I know, it says, ha ha, fool, you guessed wrong.
Are we really all beggars?
I have to hope that we are. Holding the tweezers in my teeth, I climb up to the edge of the bowl. My hands spill dust everywhere, protecting my skin against the cold. I try not to let any fall on the key.
It’s a long fall back to Ferra’s arms.
I can’t breathe.
Trust me back, she said.
Even down here, I can see how out of breath Tarnish looks. His movements are frantic. His eyes bulge almost as big as his cheeks do. I can’t see his bandaged hands at work, but I imagine him fumbling against the chill of the statue as he tries to make the tweezers work for him.
But I also imagine him succeeding.
I blink in time to see him jumping off the roost and back down toward me. It’s high but I know I can catch him.
And I do.
He has enough sense to curl up as much as he can, so he lands in my arms like a great big ball of yarn. I take a sharp gasp of air as he lands, only realizing then that I’ve been holding my breath since I threw him.
“Got it,” he wheezes.
“Great,” I say as I lower him to the ground.
“Great,” says Aziz directly behind us, his voice distant and tinged with an echo.
I turn around and see that the shirtless wonder is now a few paces away from us. The air around him is clear and vibrating like it’s hot. The edge of my vision begins to blur and go green and black before I realize what he’s doing.
“Aziz!” I say sharply, but the syllable is hissed through clenched teeth.
“What are you doing?” says Tarnish stepping forward. He coughs and stumbles on an uneven brick. I try to catch him but my muscles feel like molasses in my arms. The air around us is thin and getting more noxious by the second. Tarnish can’t seem to stop coughing.
Aziz just stands there, smiling like someone’s about to hand him a present.
“You double crossing son of a—.”
“Save your breath,” he says with a laugh. “You’ve only got about a minute left.”
“Wuh-why?” says Tarnish. His face is pressed on the cold ground and it sounds like his tongue is lolling.
“I’m going to kill you,” I say, lurching forward. I cough three times before I can take another step. I drop to one knee after that. “Come here,” I say to Aziz, my hand reaching pathetically for his throat.
“Ah, ah, ah,” he says wagging a finger at me. “If you kill me you’ll just end up killing yourselves faster. I am trying to be a nice guy. I’m thinning the air so that you just pass out. Just take it easy. It’ll be over soon.”
“Heddadeal,” mumbles Tarnish. “Papa. Key.”
“Yeah, yeah,” says Aziz. “Fabantou gets the key and Dussa gets a dock so long as we all make it out. But you see, your survival isn’t important. Fabantou will give Papa Dussa the dock for that key.”
“Ima wreck it,” says Tarnish reaching into where he’s got the key.
“You wouldn’t,” says Aziz with so much confidence. “Cause it would be the same as ending me. You’d be chiseling your own graves. Face it, you’ve really got nothing to bargain with, runt.”
That’s it, Tarnish. Keep him distracted. I just need to crawl up to him and grab him and make him give us air. I just…
Aziz hops back, away from me. I’m not even close and he’s got plenty of time to do it again.
“Come on, kids! You had to know this was going to happen,” Aziz voice is so clear it rings in my ears. “Just give up. I promise. It’ll be like going to sleep.”
Tarnish is coughing again. He can’t seem to stop. I let out a few but I seem to be holding out just a little bit longer.
“Give up,” says Aziz. And he hops back again.
I am on all-fours, still shuffling toward him. Still too far.
But from this angle, I see it—a trail of slime, like oil on water, snaking a hop or two away from where Aziz is limping. The trail of slime leads back to Tarnish, whose hand is pressed firmly on the ground. He’s stopped coughing and I can’t tell if he’s breathing.
I summon what strength I have and let out something that’s a cross between a yelp and a grunt.
Aziz jumps back.
And he steps on the slimy trail.
He slips backward—fast and high. He crashes hard on to the ground before he can even cry out or curse. The sound of his head striking the pavement is one of the most satisfying things I will ever hear. And Aziz is quiet and still.
But I can’t breathe.
And I am falling forward, unable to tell if my arms are rising to break my fall. I hurtle toward the fallen Aziz. My vision is filled by his naked, feathery torso, and I close my eyes as I slam down into what feels like a grassy lump of dirt.
There is a gasp of air from Aziz as my weight settles on him. My face is pressed in the middle of his chest and I can feel the tiny feathers brushing against me in some invisible wind. My eyes are filled with tears and the shiny peacock colors bordered by darkness.
And I cough. And cough. And cough.
And I gasp. I gasp a lung full of air.
My elbows snap straight, pulling my face away from Aziz’s chest.
His sternum is bruised and some of the feathers are moving feebly.
But they are moving.
I am only a handbreadth away but the air is already painfully thin. I lean in close, like I’m smelling his feathers. The air fills my lungs, and I gasp and cough as I struggle to understand what exactly is going on.
Aziz is alive. I see his body take in air. His tiny feathers flutter slowly in time with his own shallow breathing. It must be a defense mechanism. He must generate air even when he’s unconscious.
“Tarnish,” I say, looking over to where he’s still laying with his hand pressed on the ground. His fingers are relaxed, and he doesn’t look like he’s breathing.
We sleep. That’s what St. Ipso cursed us to do. It’s more than the curse of the Island. For half the day, when the sun is brightest, we sleep as though we don’t exist. We don’t get to see the world, and the corner of the world we can see is shrouded in darkness. Every night, we awake to find someone who won’t rise from their sleep. Unless we are killed, we all die in the day. In our sleep.
It’s still nighttime, but I’m falling asleep.
I don’t want to.
But I’m tired.
Everything is dark, until it isn’t.
I wake up, remembering first air, then pain. I open my eyes. Ferra crouches over me, one hand on my chest, which feels like it’s just been hit with a battering ram.
“Sorry!” she gasps. “I tried to be gentle.”
Only then do I realize that she’s resuscitated me.
I try to move, but Ferra shakes her head.
“No point yet,” she says. “Not until we figure out what to do.”
Her breathing is shallow. My eyes slowly focus on her other hand, which she shakes back and forth as though she were holding a tambourine. It takes me a second to realize what she actually has in her hand.
“I didn’t know if they would work this way, but apparently they do,” she says. “Good for us.”
My eyes dart around. Ferra answers my unasked question.
“It worked. You made him fall. I ripped these out of his chest.”
I’ll let myself enjoy that later. If there is a later.
“Now what?” I croak.
“Well,” Ferra says, “You got the key. So let’s get out of here.”
I sit up. My entire body is trembling like I just ran a hundred laps around the Island. Ferra keeps her face close to mine, still waving the feathers.
I look up at the statue. It hasn’t moved. Ferra was right. The true key was in the beggar’s bowl.
Ferra helps me to my feet. We both stare down at the unconscious Aziz.
“I can’t carry him and wave the feathers at the same time,” Ferra says uneasily.
There’s a long moment when I know each of us expects the other to object to leaving Aziz to die. Neither of us does.
“Will we have to do the tasks all over again?” I say.
“Only one way to find out,” Ferra says.
Huddling close to the feathers in Ferra’s hand – which I can now see are flecked with blood – we step around Aziz and head towards the bridge. It’s still intact.
“Do you think it’ll just stay like this, now that we completed it?” I ask.
“I doubt it,” Ferra says.
“So basically if we cross it, it can close on us at any time.”
“Does that surprise you?”
“No,” I say. “Let’s go.”
We start to run. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that that isn’t going to work well with Ferra wielding the feathers. When they were attached to Aziz, their movement was part of his biology. It would be kind of beautiful if it were anyone but Aziz. In Ferra’s hands, though, it’s more effort with less effect. I’d offer to help, but we both know what a bad idea that would be.
The bridge doesn’t collapse, at least. We lean in close to the feathers on the other side.
“Centipedes next?” Ferra gasps.
“I’ll keep them off you,” I pant.
The centipede-encrusted boulder is right where we left it. Luckily, Ferra crushed a lot of them, so my job in the tunnel isn’t that hard. Ferra begins walking a little slower. I’ve gotten too used to the idea that her strength is inexhaustible, but the movement of her hand has begun to lose its rhythm. I pick a centipede gently out of her hair.
“We don’t know how long this will give us to get out,” I say quietly. “Based on everything so far, I would guess it won’t be a lot of time.”
“I know,” Ferra says. She blinks hard and looks at me. “I’m just realizing how many hours ago I would have gone to sleep if none of this had happened.”
If none of this had happened. That phrase does something to my chest that has nothing to do with the lack of air.
“We’re almost there,” I say, my voice rough.
We make it out of the centipede tunnel. I’m going to feel like things are crawling on me for the rest of my life, but that’s the least of my problems. Now it’s time to get through the maze.
“At least Aziz isn’t here to push me over,” I say.
Ferra doesn’t quite smile. I want to ask her how hard he fell. I want to know how long he’s going to stay unconscious. I want to know how the loss of the feathers in Ferra’s hand will impact his ability to breathe. I want to know if he would dare try to cross the bridge on his own.
I want to know if it will collapse before he can.
I don’t say any of this. No matter how she feels about Aziz, I know that a better person would feel worse about his impending death than I do now. I don’t have any illusions about Ferra thinking I’m a good person, but there are some lines that once you cross them, people never think of you the same way again.
If we make it out of here, soon all I’ll be to her is whatever she remembers about me. Even suffocating in a booby-trapped cavern can’t force that thought from my mind. If for once in my life I can defy my name, I want it to be now.
I feel my wrist click and hear the cartilage grind as I wave the feathers in front of both our faces. I try to make sure not to overexert myself, but I can feel my body fighting me. In this world I am stronger, everything is lighter or easier to break—but I’m still me. I still get tired when I walk or run or swing my arm like an oversized metronome. My shoulder feels like it might come off any second.
I try to focus on something else.
And my thoughts land on Aziz, unconscious on that cold stone floor—raw and bleeding slightly from where I took a handful of our survival. I try to remember the sight of his chest slowly going up and down. It might have been a trick of the light—shadows dancing over his feathered chest—but I tell myself the memory is accurate. He was alive when we left him.
He could be very dead by now.
Tarnish doesn’t say a thing.
I like to think we’re both being quiet to save on air.
The waters of the maze are still low and placid when we get to it. The path ahead seems both menacing and inviting—like the corner of a street you know takes you by a school teacher’s home.
“Almost there,” says Tarnish.
“Almost,” I say.
He looks at me, his face is full of asking. I can see his lips forming the “what’s” he’s going to add to the “wrong.”
I heard it too. The trembling in my voice.
“What’s wrong?” he says.
“Nothing,” I say before he can finish.
“Tired?” he ask. I can see his eyes searching for a lie.
“Immensely,” I say. I slow down my arm only for a second until I see Tarnish’s face go slack. Whether it’s from concern or lack of oxygen, I can’t be sure. He looks at the path and frowns.
“This—this is going to be tough,” he says.
“I’m tough,” I say.
And then I realize what he means.
“We’ll have to travel single file,” I say.
“If we touch the water…” he says.
And I remember the cold water rising up around us. I shiver a little.
“Will the air be enough?” he asks looking at me then at my fist.
I stare at his face, my clenched fist, glowing with tiny feathers, flashing between us. I want to tell him to think of something fast. I want to yell how numb and tired my arm is—how I can’t keep it up for much longer.
“I can carry you across this,” I say.
“What? But you’re too tired. You can’t possibly…”
“I’m tough,” I remind him. “I can do it, but we should move as quickly as possible. You’ll have to hold on extra tight since I won’t be able to use my arms to keep you in check. Just like the bride. Best case scenario we make it to the other side of the maze and I won’t need to flap as much.”
“Ferra,” he says it like he’s sorry.
“The sooner we get through this, the better,” I say.
And before he can say anything else, I turn around and crouch forward a bit.
He gets on my back, and the familiarity of it is surprising. First there’s his smell, which is wet and cold as a cream. But then there’s the warmth. He hugs me without choking, grips without pressing, and generally feels like a hug from behind. His chin rests on my right shoulder and I realize he really is hugging me.
“Ready,” he says into my ear.
“Hang on,” I tell him, waving my feathered fist in front of our faces.
And we’re off.
The path is miraculously not that slippery and I skip along it with more grace than I ever remember possessing in my life. Even my arm doesn’t feel as tired as it did. Something about the running and the speed and the load on my back feels like I got a second wind.
And just like that, we are at the end of the maze.
No muss. No fuss.
We reach the stairs and climb it quickly. I’ve stopped fanning us and we’re just holding our breath at this point. Our hands are pressing against the walls along the steps, propelling us upward and outward and into…
Be burst through a wall of sound that is the inner market. I get out first and run straight into the armed guard who Aziz ‘persuaded’ to leave the tunnel entrance. He’s big and covered in what I thought was armor but, as I slam in to him, is really the plated flesh of a turtle.
It’s a good thing I am really strong.
I send him flying with the sheer force of my exit. The scimitar he held flies out of his hands and clatters and skids away.
There is a gasp from a nearby vendor, and the crowd’s murmurs are surprised and angry.
“We made it,” wheezes Tarnish. He’s leaning on the side of the doorway, the frame of which is dusty with his ‘gift.’
“Good job with that guard,” he says.
“I didn’t even…”
The crowd is so quiet. Why is the crowd so quiet?
Tarnish looks at me in horror.
I look at him.
Then I look down.
There is a fleshy, boneless hand wrapped firmly around my left ankle, the length of it snakes away from me to parts unknown.
“Tarnish,” I whisper.
Before he can answer the ground rushes up to meet me and I am pulled away in an undertow—the hand is painfully strong and cold all at once. I don’t think I even remember to scream. I see a blur of legs and feel the dusty floor scrape me as I speed away from him.
The smell of something terrible fills the air.