Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Ana’s Tag

Ana and Rico walked on the very edge of the road where the pavement slumped and crumbled. They were on their way to buy sodas, and there were no sidewalks. They made it as far as the spot where the old meat-packing factory had burned down when Deputy Chad drove up and coasted his car alongside at a walking pace.

Ana was just tall enough to see the deputy through his car window and the empty space of the passenger seat. Her brother Rico was taller, but he wasn’t trying to look through the car window. Rico was staring straight ahead of him.

“Hi kids,” said Deputy Chad.

“Hi,” said Ana.

“I need to ask you both about the incident at the school,” the deputy said.

“Okay,” said Ana when Rico didn’t say anything.

“It’s very important,” the deputy said. “This is the first sign of gang activity. Everyone knows that. Gang activity.” He tried to arch one eyebrow, but it didn’t really work and his forehead scrunched.

Other cars slowed to line up behind the squad car, coasting along.

“What’s the second sign?” Ana asked.

“The second sign,” said Deputy Chad, taking a deep breath, “happens at night, on the highway. It involves headlights. Do you know that keeping your high-beams on at night can blind oncoming traffic?”

Ana didn’t. She nodded anyway.

“Usually a driver has just forgotten to turn them off, and the way to let them know is to flash your own high-beams, just briefly. But they drive around with the high-beams on deliberately. If you flash at one of their cars, they pull a quick and violent U-turn and follow you, very close. Sometimes they just do it to see where you live. Sometimes they run you off the road. Bam!” He smacked the top of his steering wheel.

Ana jumped. He grinned at her, and she grinned back.

“What’s the third sign?” Rico asked, without grinning.

“I can’t tell you that,” said Deputy Chad. “Ask your parents. It is the last ceremony of initiation, and it involves blonde ten-year-olds.”

“I’m ten,” said Ana.

“You’re not blonde, so you’re probably safe. Probably.”

“Oh,” said Ana. “Good.”

The line behind Deputy Chad was now seven cars long, coasting slowly. None of them dared to pass a cop.

“So,” said the deputy. “You can see why we need to put a stop to this kind of thing right away, before it escalates. Do you know anything about the incident at school?”

“No,” said Rico.

“What’s the graffiti of?” asked Ana.

“It is deliberately illegible,” said the deputy. “It’s in code. Probably a street-name. A tag. Graffiti is often somebody’s tag, delineating whose turf is whose. It looks like it could be in Spanish.”

Ana and Rico’s parents spoke Spanish. They used it as their secret language, and slipped into Spanish whisperings whenever they didn’t want Ana or Rico to understand them. Sometimes, in public, Ana and Rico liked to pretend they could speak it, too. They would toss together random words and gibberish and use an accent because both of them could fake a pretty good one. They hadn’t played that game for a while.

Rico bent forward a little so he could look through the passenger window. “I’ll let you know if I hear anything about it,” he said.

“Good boy,” said the deputy, and smiled a satisfied smile. “Be safe, now.” He drove off. Cars followed him like ducklings.

“Perro muerto,” said Ana. It meant dead dog, or maybe dead hair. It was one of their nonsense curses. “He thinks you did it.”

“Yeah,” said Rico.

“Did you?” Ana asked.

“Yeah,” said Rico.

“Oh. What does it say?”

“Not telling.”

“Oh,” said Ana. Rico pushed Ana to his right side so he could walk between her and the moving cars, and then he made a sign with his left hand. He tried not to let Ana see him do it. She saw anyway, but she didn’t ask. She cared more about the graffiti. “I’ll do all the dishes if you tell me what it says.”

“No.”

“Okay.” Ana thought about how long it would take to get to the East Wells high school, try to read the painted wall, write down all of her guesses, and walk home. She decided she could make it before dinner. Maybe Rico would tell her if she guessed right.

They were almost to the gas station, which had a much better selection of soda to pick from than the corner store. The last part of the walk was uphill, and Ana had to work harder to keep up with her brother.

“Do you think there really are gangs?” she asked.

Rico shrugged, and smiled a little. “Gangs of what?”

“I don’t know. Gangs.”

“I doubt it,” he said. “East Wells isn’t big enough to put together a gang of anything bigger than two people. Deputy Chad is just really, really bored.” He reached up and twisted his new earring stud. He’d pierced it himself with a sewing needle. Ana had held the swabs and rubbing alcohol while he did it. She’d felt obliged to help, because she already had pierced ears, so she could offer him the benefit of her knowledge.

“Don’t forget to clean that when we get home,” she said.

“I won’t,” he said. He sounded annoyed. Ana decided to change the subject to something casual and harmless.

“Why isn’t there a West Wells?” she asked.

Rico stopped walking. They were in the gas station parking lot, only a few steps away from soda and air conditioning. Ana turned around. Her brother was staring at her.

“What did you say?”

“West Wells,” she said again, trying to be extra casual and harmless. “We live in East Wells, but it isn’t actually east of anything. There’s just, you know, the woods by the school and then endless fields of grain on all sides. There’s no West Wells.”

Rico exhaled, loudly. “That’s right,” he said. “There is nothing to the west of this dinky little town. You are absolutely right.” He walked by her and went inside. Ana followed. She had questions, endless questions bubbling up somewhere near her stomach, and she had to swallow to keep them there because Rico was definitely not in an answering kind of mood.

She shivered in the air conditioning, even though she’d been looking forward to it. Rico knew which soda he wanted, but Ana took a long time to choose.

• • • •

Ana got her cat backpack from her bedroom closet. It was brown and furry and had two triangular ears sewn onto the top. She pulled a stack of library books out of it and replaced them with a flashlight, rope, chocolate-chip granola bars, Band-Aids, a notebook, and Magic Markers. She filled up the small, square canteen that had been Tio Frankie’s with water and packed that, too. Then she took out the flashlight, because it was summer and it didn’t get dark outside until long after dinnertime, and she needed to be back by dinner anyway.

“Did you clean your ear?” she asked Rico’s bedroom door.

“No,” he said from behind it.

“Don’t forget. You don’t want it to get infected.”

“I won’t forget,” he said.

She walked to the East Wells high school, taking a shortcut through two cornfields to keep off the highway. It wasn’t a long walk, but during the school year almost everybody took the bus anyway because of the highway and the lack of sidewalks. Rico liked walking, even in wintertime. Ana saw him sometimes through the bus window on her way to East Wells Elementary.

She walked between cornrows and underneath three billboards. Two of them said something about the Bible. One was an ad for a bat cave ten miles further down the road. Ana had never seen the bat cave. Rico said it wasn’t much to see, but she still wanted to go.

Ana crossed the empty parking lot in front of the high school, and skirted around the athletic field to the back of the gym. She knew where to find the gym because it doubled as a theater, and last summer a troupe of traveling actors had put on The Pirates of Penzance. After the show, Ana had decided to become a traveling actor. Then she decided that what she really wanted to be was a pirate king.

A little strip of mowed lawn separated the gym from the western woods.

Three of Rico’s friends were there, standing in front of the graffiti. Ana could see green paint behind them. They were smoking, of course. Julia and Nick smoked cloves, sweet-smelling. Garth wore a Marlboro-Man kind of hat, so he was probably smoking that kind of cigarette. His weren’t sweet-smelling.

“Hey,” Ana said.

“Hey,” said Julia. Ana liked Julia.

“Hey,” said Nick. Nick was Julia’s boyfriend. Ana was pretty sure that her brother was jealous of this. Nick and Julia were both in Rico’s band, and both of them were really, really tall. They were taller than Rico, and much taller than Garth.

Garth didn’t say anything. He chose that moment to take a long drag on his cigarette, probably to demonstrate that he wasn’t saying anything. Garth was short and stocky and scruffy. He wasn’t in the band. He had a kind of beard, but only in some places. He also had a new piercing in his eyebrow. It was shaped like the tusk from a very small elephant. The skin around it was red and swollen and painful-looking.

Ana thought eyebrow rings were stupid. She liked earrings, and she could understand nose rings, belly-button rings, and even pierced tongues, but metal sticking out of random facial places like eyebrows just looked to her like shrapnel from a booby-trapped jewelry box. She didn’t like it. The fact that Garth’s eyebrow was obviously infected proved that she was right, and that the universe didn’t like it either.

“You should use silver for a new piercing,” Ana told him. “And you need to keep it clean.”

“This is silver,” said Garth. He didn’t look at her as he said it. He looked at the tops of trees.

“Don’t worry about him,” said Nick. “He likes pain. He gets confused and grumpy if something doesn’t hurt.”

“Oh,” said Ana. She edged around them, trying to get a better look at the wall and the paint.

Garth threw down his cigarette, stepped on it, and reached out to knock the cloves from Nick and Julia’s hands. “Bertha’s coming,” he said.

Bertha walked around the corner. She was the groundskeeper. Rico used to help her mow the school lawn as a summer job, but this year he hadn’t bothered. Her name wasn’t really Bertha, and Ana didn’t want to ever call her that, but she didn’t know what Bertha’s name really was.

Bertha sniffed, and smiled. Her hair was a big, feathered mullet.

“One of you isn’t smoking cloves,” she said. “One of you is smoking real cigarettes, and I am going to bet it isn’t the one with the kitten backpack. One of you is gonna buy my silence. ‘Why, no, officer, I sure didn’t see any young hooligans smoking near your site of vandalism.’”

Ana, Nick, and Julia all looked at Garth. Garth grunted, handed over his pack of cigarettes and walked away. He walked away into the woods.

“Bye, Ana,” Julia said. “Say hi to Rico. Tell him we need to rehearse.” She took Nick’s arm and the two of them followed Garth.

Ana could see the graffiti, now. It was red and green and it wasn’t anything Ana knew how to decipher. Parts of it were swoofy, and other parts had sharp, edgy bits. It looked like it was made up of letters, but she wasn’t sure which letters they were.

Bertha lit one of Garth’s cigarettes. “Gonna have to rent a sandblaster,” she said. “Won’t come off without a sandblaster, and it’s brick so I can’t just paint over it.”

“Deputy Chad thinks it was gangs that did it,” Ana said.

Bertha snorted. “Town isn’t big enough for gangs,” she said. “Doesn’t matter anyway. This is just somebody marking their territory. This is colored piss with artistic pretensions.”

Ana took out her notebook, but she didn’t have any guesses to write down yet. “How’s the novel?” she asked Bertha. This was the usual thing to ask. Bertha had always been writing a novel.

“Terrible,” Bertha said.

“Sorry,” said Ana. She wondered if it was better to be a novelist or a traveling actor, and decided it would still be better to be a pirate king.

“What’s with the notebook?” Bertha asked. She flicked her cigarette butt at the graffiti, and it hit the bricks above the paint with a shower of orange sparks.

“I’m going to draw it,” Ana said, “I’ll take it home and figure out what it says, and then . . . then maybe I’ll know who did it. I’ll solve the mystery.”

“Have fun,” Bertha said. She opened a door in the gym wall with one of the many jingling keys at her belt and went in. The door shut behind her with a loud metal scrape.

Ana drew the graffiti tag. Luckily she had the right colors of Magic Marker. It took her seven tries to get it right.

• • • •

The screen door squeaked when Ana opened it. The kitchen lights were on. One cold plateful of food sat on an otherwise bare table. Ana’s mother sat at the other end, face down on her folded arms. She was snoring. Ana hid her backpack under the table, and put the plate of food on a chair and out of sight.

“Wake up, Mama,” she said.

Her mother woke up. “Where have you been, child?” she asked, annoyed but mostly groggy.

“Here,” Ana said. “I’ve been here for hours. Sorry I missed dinner.”

“You should be,” said her mother. “Where —”

Ana pretended to yawn. Her mother couldn’t help yawning, then, and this made Ana yawn for real. “Bedtime,” she said, once she was able to say anything. Her mother nodded, and both of them went upstairs.

Ana snuck back downstairs to throw away her dinner and fetch her backpack. She ate the chocolate granola bars while sitting on the floor of her bedroom and studying the graffiti in her notebook. She thought it might say roozles, rutterkin, or rumbustical, but there were always extra letters, or at least extra swoofs and pointy edges to the letters, and the longer she stared at it, the less each word fit.

Ana slept. She dreamed that her kitten-backpack climbed snuffling onto the foot of her bed. She woke up when it stepped on her toes, and once she was awake she could see its pointy-eared outline. A car drove by outside and made strange window-shade shadows sweep across the wall and ceiling. Maybe the car had its high-beams on.

Her bag moved. She kicked it and it fell off the edge, landing with more of a soft smacking sound than it should have. Ana wanted to turn on the light, but the light switch was across the room. She would have to touch the floor to get there. She decided that now would be a really excellent time to develop telekinetic powers, and spent the next several minutes concentrating on the light switch.

Another car went by.

She got up, tiptoed across the floor and turned on the light. She turned around.

The backpack was right at her feet. She didn’t scream. She swallowed an almost-scream.

The furry, pointy-eared bag wasn’t moving. She pulled on the edges of the zipper and peeked inside. Her expedition supplies were still there. She poked through them with the capped tip of a Magic Marker, just in case there was also something else in there. The notebook lay open to the seventh graffiti-covered page. She tried to nudge it aside, but the tip of the marker went through the colored surface. She dropped the pen. It passed through the graffiti and vanished. The page rippled like a pond.

She took another Magic Marker and used it to close the notebook cover. Then she looked out in the hallway to see if Rico’s bedroom light was on. It was. She took the notebook, tiptoed by her parents’ room, and sped up to pass the stairway. The air felt different at the top of the stairs. It felt like the stairway was holding its breath. It felt like the open space might breathe her in and down and swallow her.

She knocked on Rico’s door. No answer. She knocked again, because she knew it would be locked from the inside so there wasn’t any point in trying to open it herself. He still didn’t answer. She tried the doorknob and it turned.

He wasn’t there. She tread carefully on the few clear and visible parts of the floor, and took a better look around from the middle of the room. He wasn’t standing behind his dresser or lurking behind the armrest of the ratty old couch. He wasn’t hiding in his closet, because it was filled with too much junk already and nothing more would fit. She looked under the bed and he wasn’t there either. She looked at the empty bed and found a rolled up piece of parchment. You play tomorrow night, musician, it said. Be ready.

The parchment crumbled into several brown leaves and drifted to the floor, settling among the socks and books and torn pieces of sheet music.

“He must be rehearsing,” she said to herself. “I’ll try to find him tomorrow.”

She went back to her room, and hung the backpack up on the knob handle of one of her dresser drawers to keep it from wandering, and went to bed. She left the light on. She didn’t see anything move for the rest of the night, including her backpack. She heard things move instead.

• • • •

Rico wasn’t at breakfast. This wasn’t unusual, because he almost always slept until lunchtime, so their parents didn’t seem worried as they bustled and joked and made coffee and went away to work after kissing Ana on each cheek. Ana went back upstairs as soon as they were gone. Rico wasn’t in his room. Bits of brown leaves crunched and crumbled in the carpet under her feet.

Ana got dressed, and took her backpack down from the knob she’d hung it on.

“Don’t go walking anywhere without me,” she said. She took more granola bars from the kitchen, and refilled her little square canteen, and locked up the house.

It started to rain when she reached the first highway billboard, and Ana’s clothes and backpack were soggy by the time she got to the gym. The bag’s sopping ears lay flat against the zipper.

She stood in front of the graffiti, took a deep breath and wondered if she was supposed to say something out loud. Maybe she was supposed to say whatever the graffiti said, and she still couldn’t read it.

Something snarled in the trees behind her. Ana turned around, took a step backwards, and tried to press herself against the wall. It didn’t work. She pressed and passed through it.

“Hello,” said a voice that scraped against the insides of her ears.

Ana faced another painted wall, stone instead of brick. She took a breath. The air was still and it smelled like thick layers of dust. She turned around. An old man, thin and spindly, sat on a stool and polished a carved flute. He had a wispy beard. He tested two notes on the flute and set to polishing again. Behind him were several shelves of similar instruments. Some were plain and a pale yellow-grey. Some were carved with delicate patterns, and others inlaid with metals and lacquered over.

“Hello,” Ana said.

“The Grey Lady brings deliveries every second Tuesday, and today is neither thing. Are you delivered here? Has she changed schedules?”

“I don’t know any grey ladies,” Ana said. “Except math teachers. Do you mean Mrs. Huddle?”

“No huddling things,” the old man said. He set down the flute on a carved wooden stand, picked up a bone from his workbench and took a rasp to the knobby joints. “Tell me your purposes then, if no Lady brought you. Are you here to buy a flute?”

“No,” Ana said. “I’m looking for my brother.”

“Unfortunate that you should look for him here. How old?”

“He’s sixteen.”

“So old? Good, good. I won’t have pieces of him, then.”

Ana looked around for pieces of people. There was a straw cot in the corner beside a green metal stove. There were baskets and tin lanterns hanging by chains from a high ceiling. There were no windows. A staircase against one wall led up to the only doorway. There was a workbench, and shelves full of flutes, and a mural of moonlight and trees where she had stepped through the wall.

“He’s a musician,” Ana said. “A singer. He’s in a band, I think. Last week they were The Paraplegic Weasels, but I don’t know if that’s still their name. It keeps changing.”

“Very prudent,” said the old man, rasping bone.

“He’s supposed to play for someone tonight. I don’t know who.”

“Tonight there are many festivities, or so I’ve heard rumor.” He swapped the rasp for a finer file, and began to scrape the bone more delicately.

Ana took a step closer. “The invitation turned into leaves after I read it.”

“Then he’ll likely play his music in the Glen,” the old man said. “You should be on the forest paths, and not here in the City.”

“City?”

“Oh yes. Underneath it, a few layers down.” He wiped away loose bone-dust, and set both bone and file down on the workbench. “The stone floor you’re standing on used to be a road, but the City is always growing up over itself.”

“Oh,” Ana said. She looked down at the floor. The old man reached down, scooped her up by the armpits and set her on the edge of the workbench. She swallowed an almost-scream when he pinched each leg, squeezing down to the thighbones, and then she kicked him in the stomach.

Ana jumped down, ran to the mural, and smacked the surface of it with the palms of both hands. The surface held. Behind her the old man wheezed and coughed and laughed a little.

“No matter,” he said. “Both bones broken, and all the music leaked out from the fractures. Can’t make any kind of flute from either leg. How did you break them both?”

Ana turned around to watch him. He sat back on his stool, wheezing, and he seemed to want to stay there. “I jumped off the roof.”

“And what flying thing were you fleeing from?” he asked.

“Nothing. Rico dared me to jump, so I did. I didn’t tell on him, either. He still owes me for that.”

“Well,” the old man said, “I hope you can collect what he owes when you find him. Such a shame that your bones were broken. There are a great many children, and there isn’t enough music. There isn’t nearly enough.”

“So how do I get out?” She hated admitting that she didn’t already know.

The old man smiled, and widened up his eyes. “Boo,” he said, puffing out his thin beard.

Ana took a step backwards, and passed through the stone.

Her face was inches away from her brother’s graffiti. It was dark, and she could barely see the colors by moonlight. She looked around. She was alone. Her backpack was gone.

“I told it not to wander off,” she said.

• • • •

There was only one forest path she could find. Ana took a walking stick from a pile of broken branches near the edge of the woods, and took a deep breath, and set out. She wished she had her flashlight. She wished she had her backpack. In her head she promised to give it a scratch behind the ears if it would come back, and to never again hang it up on a dresser drawer knob. It had looked uncomfortable there.

The air smelled like wet leaves, heavy and rich. She followed the path uphill and downhill and around sudden corners cut into the sides of hills. She passed trees that looked like tall, twisted people until she looked at them directly. Ana hoped she was following the right trail. She saw a wispy orange light between the tree trunks and decided to follow that instead.

The orange light brightened as Garth inhaled cigarette smoke. He was leaning on a boulder. He looked up and blew smoke at the moon.

Half of his face was swollen.

“Hey,” said Ana. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Waiting for little girls, maybe.”

“Your infection’s worse.”

“True,” he said. “But this bit of silver is keeping me from gnawing on your bones.”

“Oh,” said Ana. “Good. Everybody should stay away from my bones.”

He took another drag, brightening up the wispy orange light, and tugged his hat down to cover more of the swollen half of his face. Ana held on to her stick.

“Do you know where Rico is?” she asked.

“Maybe. He plays tonight.”

“Can you take me to him?”

“Maybe.” Garth dropped the cigarette and stepped on it, crushing the little orange flame. He walked off, away from the path. Ana waited for some signal from him that she should follow. She didn’t get one. She followed.

Garth took long strides, and his boots hit the ground like he was trying to punish it for something. Ana tried to keep up, and she tried to keep a little bit behind him at the same time. She didn’t want to be too close. He hunched, staring at the ground, and she thought he was moping more than usual until he dove, snarling. He came up holding a lanky thing covered in short, spiky fur.

“Where does the Guard keep watch tonight?” he asked.

The lanky thing shrugged and grinned many teeth.

“Where does the Guard watch the Glen?” He shook the thing in his hand.

It snickered.

“Please?” Ana asked, very sweetly.

The lanky thing blew her a kiss. “Tonight there is no waking Guard,” it said. “Tonight he is sleeping and dreaming that he guards, and he crosses no one unless they cross into his dreaming while he sleeps at his post, which is easy to do and see to it that you don’t. Everything within a pebble’s toss of him in all directions is only the substance of his dream, and inside it the Guard is a much better guard than he ever was awake. He guards the Western Arch.”

“How many arches are there?” Garth asked.

“Tonight there is only the Western Arch. All others are overgrown. It rained today.”

“Thank you,” Ana said.

The lanky thing bowed, which was difficult to do while Garth held it up by the scruff of its neck. Then it bit him hard on the wrist and dropped to the ground. Garth howled. The lanky thing snickered from somewhere nearby.

“Let me see your wrist,” Ana said. She had Band-Aids in her backpack. Then she remembered that she didn’t have her backpack.

Garth looked at her. Garth never made eye contact, but he did so now, and he held it, and he also made a little rumbling noise in the back of his throat.

“No,” he said.

“Okay,” she said.

“You should know that I’m not interested in dying for your brother. He’s all right. I like him. But I’m not interested in death on his behalf. I’m not interested in any of the things so close to death that the distinction makes no difference. This is something you should know before we go any further.”

“Okay,” she said again.

He walked away. She followed. She wondered where her backpack was.

• • • •

They found an enormous figure in full plate armor, asleep. The Guard was dreaming a desert the size of a pebble’s throw. All around it was sunlight and sand and nowhere to hide.

“That’s the Western Gate,” Garth said.

“Where?” Ana whispered.

“Behind the desert. Cut into the wall of thorns, there.” He pointed. Ana stood at the very edge of the desert and squinted. She could only see sand and sun in front of them.

Garth dropped another finished cigarette, driving it further into the dirt than he really needed to. “Good luck,” he said.

“Wait,” Ana told him. “Don’t go yet. I’m going to try something.”

She picked up a pebble, took aim, and threw it at the precise moment that she stepped forward into desert sand. For just an instant she knew what it was like to be an unimportant part of someone else’s dream. Then the pebble struck the Guard’s gold helmet, clanging loudly and waking it up.

The desert vanished. Ana ducked behind a tree that hadn’t been there before and leaned against the trunk. She could hear the metal movements of plate armor on the other side. She didn’t know where Garth was.

“I am a pirate king,” Ana whispered to herself. “It’s a glorious thing to be a pirate king.”

She ran, and switched directions twice, and tried to circle back towards the Western Gate. She almost stumbled in the dark, but she didn’t. The Guard almost caught her anyway. She felt gauntleted fingers snatch at her shoulder. Then she heard it clang and crash against the ground. She stopped, panting, and turned around to look.

Garth stood over the Guard, who was much shorter and less impressive than it had dreamed itself earlier. Garth looked at Ana, snarled, and jerked his chin towards the Gate. Then he spit on the Guard’s golden armor.

Ana backed further away. She watched the Guard pull itself up off the ground. It plucked out Garth’s silver piercing with a little spray of blood.

Garth howled, and his face began to change.

Ana turned away and slipped inside.

• • • •

The Glen was at least as big as a cornfield, and covered over with a dome of branches high overhead. Inside the branches were orange wisps of light, glowing and fading again.

It was full of dancers. Ana looked at them, and closed her eyes, and looked again. She could hear Rico singing over the noise of the crowd.

“I’m still a pirate king,” she whispered to herself, weaving her way in between dancers and trying to find the stage. She dodged the dancing things, and bumped into some, and passed through the shimmering substance of others. She saw colors and antlers and sharp teeth in strange places.

She found the stage. She found her brother. He sang, and the language sounded a little bit like Spanish but not very much. Nick played a red guitar, acoustic and covered in gold ivy. Julia played a yellow-grey flute. Both of them were even taller than they usually were.

Rico saw her, and Ana saw a lot of white around the edges of his eyes when he did. He nudged Julia, and she started a flute solo, and he got down off the stage and pulled Ana behind it. She opened her mouth and he shushed her.

“Okay, don’t eat or drink. Whatever else you do, don’t eat anything and don’t drink anything. Now tell me what you think you’re doing.”

“Looking for you,” Ana said.

“I’m impressed,” he said, biting on his lower lip. “I really am. But this is very, very bad and I’m not sure how to fix it.”

“What’s the problem?” Ana asked, folding her arms and looking at him as though she were the older one.

“Okay,” Rico said, taking deep breaths. “Do you see those guys over there? The ones with the tattoos?”

“They’re the gang?” Ana asked.

“Yeah. Sure. Kind of. And this is supposed to be my last task for them, and then after the concert I’ll learn how to sing up every chrome piece of a motorcycle and ride it from town to town, stopping only to hum the fuel tank full again. I’ll learn how to sing hurricanes and how to send them away. I’ll learn how to sing something people can dance to for a full year and never notice the time passing.”

“Sounds like fun,” Ana said.

“Sure. The catch is that this crowd has to be happy and dancing until the dawn light comes. If they stop before then, I fail and I have to serve the guys with the tattoos for at least a hundred years. So you should either go, right now, however you came here, or else hide somewhere and don’t eat or drink or talk to anyone until dawn. And don’t do anything distracting, because the crowd might stop dancing and that would be very bad. They like children here, but they care about music a lot more than they care about kids.”

Ana looked up at Julia and her yellow-grey flute.

“I have go back onstage now,” Rico said.

“Okay,” Ana said.

“Hide,” he said.

“Okay.”

He went back onstage. Julia finished her solo, and Rico sang. He was good.

Ana thought she saw her backpack scamper between someone’s hooves. She followed. Then she saw Garth, or at least she assumed it was Garth. He had started to eat people near the Western Arch.

“Crap,” Ana said. He was distracting the crowd. Some of them weren’t dancing anymore.

She ran back to the arch and slipped through. She looked everywhere, kicking up leaves. She found her walking stick and used it to poke through the leaves that were dark and wet and sticky. Then she found one golden gauntlet. Blood pooled underneath it. A small, silver tusk sat in its palm.

She picked up the silver. It was very sharp. She ran back through the arch and followed the screaming.

Garth was gnawing on a severed antler with his long wolf-muzzle. Some things in the crowd were shouting, and more were laughing, and most were still dancing but not all of them were.

“Hey, perro muerto,” Ana said. She threw her walking stick at him. It got his attention. He dropped the antler, bounded forward and knocked her to the ground, slavering.

Ana grabbed one of his furry ears with her left hand and shoved the tusk through it with her right. The skin of his ear resisted, stretching a little before the silver broke through.

Garth rolled over and howled. Ana got to her feet and looked around her. The crowd danced. Even those who were bleeding from the fight with Garth were dancing again. She took a deep breath, and she didn’t get a chance to let it out all the way before someone’s hand took her by the elbow and pulled her towards the stage.

She looked up at the arm attached to the hand. It had green and red letters tattooed all up and down its length.

Rico, Julia, and Nick bowed to the sound of applause and unearthly cries. The sky began to lighten above the branches, grey and rose-colored and pale.

The owner of the green and red arm pushed Ana forward in front of Rico. “What’s this?” Rico asked.

“Your last initiation,” said a very deep voice behind Ana. She didn’t want to turn around. She looked straight ahead at her brother. “Sing her to sleep. Let her sleep for a thousand years, or at least until another glacier passes this way.”

“I’ve already finished my initiation,” Rico said. “They all danced until dawn.”

“Yes,” said the voice. “You held them, most of them, and they were deer in headlights high-beamed by your song. Those you lost, you gained again as they danced, bleeding. It was good. But it was not your last task. The last requires a ten-year-old.”

“Crap,” said Ana.

Rico took her hand, pulled her closer, and tossed red and green colors into the air between them and the crowd. Colors settled into the shape of his tag. Ana still couldn’t read it.

“Home,” Rico said. “I’ll follow when I can.”

“You have to tell me what it says,” Ana told him, but he just smiled and pushed her through.

• • • •

Their parents were as frantic as one might expect. Ana managed to slip into her brother’s room and find green and red spray paint hidden behind the couch before her mother and father and Deputy Chad came in to look for clues to Rico’s whereabouts. Ana kept the spray paint hidden under her own bed.

It took a long time for Ana to get back to the high school, because her parents kept closer tabs on her after Rico disappeared. Bertha had already sandblasted the graffiti, and Ana couldn’t find the forest path, and she didn’t know where Garth was. She hoped he wasn’t dead, or something very close to dead. She walked home, and listened to three nervous phone messages from her mother on the answering machine. Ana called her back and told her she was home, and that everything was fine, even though it wasn’t really.

She went up to her room, and found her backpack sitting on her bed. She gave it a hug. It purred when she scratched behind its ears.

“I’m really, really angry at you for leaving,” she said. It kept purring.

Inside she found three pages torn from her notebook. They were folded in half together, with “Ana” written on the front.

The first page was in Rico’s handwriting. I’ll see you as soon as I find a way out of a hundred years of servitude, it said. Don’t worry, I’ll manage. DO NOT COME LOOKING FOR ME. Keep a pinch of salt in your pocket at all times, and stay out of the woods, and DO NOT keep following me around. I’m serious.

Ana snorted, and turned the page. It was her seventh drawing, with a note written underneath: This is my name, dumbass.

She turned to the last page.

This is yours.

Ana looked at it, and saw that it was.

She took out her Magic Markers and practiced marking her territory on the back wall of her closet.

William Alexander

William Alexander

William Alexander won the National Book Award in 2012 for his first novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. His second novel, Ghoulish Song, was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Award. He recently published Ambassador, his third novel and first work of science fiction.

Will studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at Clarion. He currently teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.