Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Innocent Bird

It began with Shoko finding feathers in her bed. It was her third year of high school. She’d just turned seventeen.

She was falling in love, and her wings were coming in.

At first, there were not so many feathers, but soon there were more and more. She’d assumed they’d be white; in drawings, most people with wings had feathers like swans or doves. Hers were like a sparrow’s: tones of warm brown like her skin in summer, speckled with olive-black like her hair and eyes.

Day by day, Shoko’s feeling of incipience rose. She wanted to kiss Ichika. She wanted to hold her close. Love fluttered inside her as her wings soon would in the air.

She was desperate to stop it.

• • • •

Shoko tried to avoid Ichika by dropping out of their a capella group. She said her father needed help in the afternoons at the family restaurant. It wasn’t entirely a lie—she did their books so she knew how close they were to losing money—but the restaurant needed a lot more than a few afternoons.

Since they didn’t have practice together, Ichika started looking for Shoko at other times of day. While everyone was changing into their school slippers before the day started, Ichika would bring Shoko buns that she’d baked with her sister. At the end of lunch, when Ichika was done eating, she’d rush from her homeroom to Shoko’s so they could walk to the bathroom together.

Cheeks pinked, books clutched flat against her chest, she’d fall into step beside Shoko and say something like:

“You don’t know how much we all miss you. We need you. Yua can’t carry the alto line alone. Chizue’s drowning everyone out.”

Their a capella club meant a lot to Ichika. It was the only thing she did because she enjoyed it. Her parents had only let her join because she’d proven she could still keep up with the cooking and housework and taking care of her sister.

“You can sing as loud as Chizue,” Shoko said.

“It hurts my throat,” Ichika said. “Oh, whoops—your collar is flipped up in back.”

Shoko’s neck tingled under Ichika’s fingertips.

Ichika tapped Shoko’s nose. “Fixed it.”

Shoko hoped she wasn’t blushing.

Ichika paused. Her eyes—ice-blue, enormous—searched Shoko’s face. Despite the natural downturn of her mouth, once one knew her, it was easy to tell when Ichika was actually sad, and she was right now.

“Can’t you talk to your dad?” Ichika asked. “Unless . . . Shoko . . . Is there something really bad?”

Shoko’s skin tingled where Ichika touched her arm.

The chimes rang.

Shoko took half a step backward. “Can’t be late to class.”

Ichika’s frown deepened, but her hand withdrew. “Talk to your dad!” she called back as she left for class, her plaid uniform skirt swinging around her knees.

• • • •

Shoko didn’t blame her father for the wings. Before meeting her mother, Daishiro had been a normal, sensible man. He hadn’t believed in magic. Why would he? Of course he hadn’t guessed what her mother was.

How could he have known to search for hidden wings that sometimes couldn’t even be touched? Or to be suspicious of the “nerve disorder” that kept people from touching his wife’s back? Why should he believe that he really did feel feathers sometimes when his wife laughed any time he brought it up?

Shoko’s mother had showed Daishiro her wings eventually, after Shoko was born, when it was too late.

• • • •

Walking home, Shoko caught sight of her father from a distance. He was crouching on his heels, sipping coconut water out of a squeeze box, just outside their little restaurant where he sold fish tacos, close enough to greet passing customers if they came.

He and Shoko lived together in the cramped rooms behind the restaurant. The original owner had slept on a mat in the kitchen, but the next one had added on a pair of tiny bedrooms. The newer part of the building extended to one side of the old like an outstretched wing.

Shoko tried to sneak past, but Daishiro waved her over with the hand holding the coconut water.

“Why are you home early again?” Daishiro asked. “How long are they canceling practice for?”

Shoko turned her head and coughed. She mumbled, “I don’t know.”

“What does the teacher say?”

“I don’t know,” she repeated defensively. She didn’t like lying to him.

For a moment, she considered telling him about the wings—but no—magic was her mother’s world. She had no choice but to cope with it, but that didn’t mean she should drag her father in, too.

This was uncomfortable. Daishiro had raised her to be independent. She’d started helping with the restaurant’s books when she was ten. They didn’t have the kind of relationship where he monitored what she was doing. She didn’t know how to react.

Shoko hurried to the door before Daishiro could ask anything else. She pretended not to hear him try to call her back.

• • • •

The ocean was Shoko’s first, greatest love. She’d taught herself to swim in the surf while her father watched nearby, drinking the tamarind soda that his old surfing buddies from Baja sent over from Mexico. The best hours of her life were spent on her own in the water, cutting her way through swells with her hands, filling her lungs and diving down. She loved the ocean’s varied voices: the crashing surf, the wind stinging unsettled waves, the muttering undulation of deep currents.

She’d loved other things. A crocheted pink cat with button eyes she’d dragged around when she was a baby. A set of rhinestone ponytail holders she’d worn until the stones fell out. The tiny, worn-out bathing suit with teal ruffles that was the first piece of clothing she’d ever picked out by herself.

She loved all the little things that made up her father: the few lonely wisps on his chin that grew when he got lazy about shaving; the sound of his bare feet on sand; how grouchy he was about bad cooking.

Their home, too: the creak of the wood in high winds; the stifling warmth of sitting too close to the space heater; the smell of freshly bought fish, the stronger the better.

None of it was how she loved the ocean.

None of it was how she was falling in love with Ichika.

If only she could have the feathers of a duck, a cormorant, a pelican, a grebe, a loon—even an egret or an ibis. With sparrow’s wings, she’d never swim again, not the way she did now.

One love or another. Ichika or the sea.

• • • •

Shoko lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, holding an old candy tin in the crook of her arm. The photographs inside it made slick sounds against each other as she flicked through them.

She missed a capella, not just because of Ichika. The girls would be practicing now.

She pulled out a photograph. It was her mother and father sitting at a Western-style table. Her mother was smiling and flashing a V-sign near her chin. Daishiro looked like he was arguing with whoever had taken the picture.

Shoko’s mother sat sideways on her chair, nothing but air visible behind her. In photographs, she always sat with her back exposed; Daishiro had said her mother’s wings were on the edge of reality, but apparently, they still needed room. It was hard to notice unless you knew. Her mother’s slight swell of pregnancy was the same; Shoko could only see it in this photograph because she already knew it was there.

Shoko and her mother had always looked similar, but now that her wings were growing, the two of them seemed like twins. There were small differences—Shoko tanned in the sun and had a sturdy swimmer’s back; her mother was pale and wiry—but so much more about them was the same: small bones, sharp-but-tiny noses, deep-set eyes so dark that even the highlights were like cooling chocolate.

Depending on how Shoko looked at the picture, her mother’s face seemed to flicker between expressions. One way, she looked ready to laugh, and the smile reached her eyes. The other way, her eyes seemed bored, her smile too taut to be real.

Shoko tossed the photograph on the floor.

Another picture: Shoko’s mother standing alone, hair lank and wet from a shower or a dip in the ocean. She held a plate of candied sweet potatoes. She was mid-pregnancy; boredom was starting to bleed into her eyes.

Shoko flicked it away.

A third photograph: a tree. Her father sat cross-legged on the sturdiest limb, holding up a triumphant V-sign and looking pleased with himself. Her mother stood by the tree, turned sideways, with one hand raised to touch the trunk. Daishiro’s branch was just above her; she could have touched it just by straightening her arm. She hadn’t, though. She was looking away from him, too. It made them seem very far apart.

Her mother’s unsmiling eyes flickered between boredom and melancholia. At her feet, there was a baby basket. Shoko had probably been in it.

She tossed the photograph away.

Shoko pushed the candy tin off the bed. She listened to it thunk. She’d deal with it later.

• • • •

“Did you love my mother?” Shoko asked.

She was sitting with Daishiro at the end of the pier. She hadn’t left her room last night so Daishiro had pulled her out here this morning to sit for a while. They’d been quiet, mostly, watching the wind. There was still a little time before school.

Daishiro paused. “Hm?”

Shoko’s mouth opened slightly in surprise at herself. She hadn’t really intended to ask; it just tumbled out. “Were you in love with my mother? It’s hard to tell in the old photographs. You’re never looking at each other.”

Daishiro regarded her with confusion for a moment, then shrugged. “I thought so, but I thought a lot of things then.”

“Oh.” Shoko wasn’t sure why that answer felt so disappointing; yes or no would have been okay, but I don’t know couldn’t answer her questions about whether her mother’s smile was real or fake.

Daishiro shrugged again. “On the other hand, who am I to say I didn’t?”

• • • •

Every day, Ichika came to visit Shoko after being dismissed from her classes for the day.

Ichika’s afternoons were chaos. First, she had to pick up her little sister, Hitomi, from school and walk her home because Hitomi’s anxiety made it impossible for her to go anywhere alone, even their own house. Ichika would run back to school for a capella club, and sprint home again afterward to start dinner, help Hitomi with homework, get her own homework done, clean the house, and somehow find time to keep teaching Hitomi how to bake.

Ichika’s only advantage was that years of doing all their family’s housework had taught her to clean very efficiently. Her homeroom class always finished cleaning up the classroom before any of the others got halfway. It wasn’t all that much time, but it gave Ichika a slice of a second to go see Shoko after school.

Shoko’s class did not clean quickly so Ichika had to waste valuable minutes waiting for her outside. So far, Ichika had always stayed, but Shoko knew that eventually her class would take too long, and Hitomi would send her sister too many anxious texts, and Ichika would run off before Shoko left the classroom. Ichika’s schedule was so tight, and she tried never to be late for anything, especially when it involved Hitomi. Ichika always said, Someone has to be reliable for her. It obviously wasn’t going to be their parents.

The last few minutes of Shoko’s school day were always both delectable and dreadful. Her hands trembled, her stomach twisted, and sometimes it was because seeing Ichika was always the best part of any day, and sometimes it was because she hoped Ichika would leave this time, and sometimes—usually—it was both. Every time, on that threshold moment when she stepped out of the classroom, she wondered: would Ichika be gone, or would she still be there? Which one was better? Which one did she want?

Finally, there came a day when Shoko’s class decided they needed to deep clean the bookshelves, and Shoko knew, just knew, that this was the day when Ichika would be gone. She tried to imagine what it would be like. Maybe her heart would feel abandoned, and break, and finally stop falling in love. She could go back to the way she’d been before, singing and laughing with the girls, having an amazing best friend who had a special place in her life, just not that place.

That would be good, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it be a relief, like letting the weight of a humid day evaporate when you walked into air conditioning? But she was afraid of it, too, even though she tried to deny it. There was already a leaden lump in her chest pulling her heart into her stomach. Her throat kept almost-aching as if she’d been crying.

It didn’t matter. Dread or hope, sadness or relief, whatever happened would happen. Just as long as this was over.

At last, all the shelves were dusted, and the books organized and straightened, and it was time to go. Shoko left last, wiping her palms on her skirt to dab off some light sweat. Her hands were too nervous to stay still; they grabbed at her hem, twisting and pulling.

She walked into the hallway.

Ichika’s eyes lit up like the blue peaks of candle flames.

She was leaning against the opposite wall, seeming entirely casual in her slightly rumpled uniform, wisps of hair falling to frame her face. She rushed to wrap Shoko in a fast, tight hug.

“What about Hitomi—” Shoko began.

“I’ll get there. I’ll sprint.”

Ichika pressed a kiss to Shoko’s cheek, right below her eye.

“Bye!” Ichika shouted, already dashing away. Her hair waved behind her as if saying goodbye.

Shoko raised her hand to her cheek.

There’s no more time, she realized with sudden certainty. Love is almost here.

• • • •

Shoko wrote an imaginary letter to her mother in her diary. Her hand was shaking with so much with anger she could barely read what she was writing.

Ichika was the first person I ever met who didn’t say “I’m sorry” after I said you abandoned us. She said, “We’re better off without people like that.”

Ichika’s mother takes off for weeks at a time when she wants to, and her father’s a drunk asshole. When Ichika was five and Hitomi got born, her mom said, “I took care of you, so this one’s your responsibility,” and gave her a bottle. Her dad said “heat it up” and went to sleep. There was no one to take care of Hitomi but Ichika. What did Ichika do? She took care of Hitomi.

Get that? Can you even fit it in your head? Ichika saw someone helpless, someone in her own family, and she stepped up to fix it.

Because that’s Ichika.

She’s passionate and she’s righteous and she stands up to protect anyone who needs help, no matter who they are, even if it gets her into trouble. And she’s brilliant. She taught herself to read English so she could watch movies with her sister. Her parents didn’t even know about it until this year. They said it’s a waste of time, but they still make her translate movies they want to watch.

People see how Ichika is with Hitomi, how Hitomi never talks, and Ichika is always telling her what to do and where to go—People see how Ichika never smiles, and her mouth is always sort of turned down like she’s mad—People complain about how Ichika always points out if something breaks the rules—And it makes people think they know her. They think she’s bitchy and stuck up and they don’t know a thing. They don’t know Hitomi starts shaking and crying when she doesn’t know what to do—They don’t know her mom takes off to Tokyo when she’s bored—they don’t know her father’s mostly blacked out on the floor. They see what they see and they think that’s all there is.

Ichika doesn’t correct them. She doesn’t care.

Let me be clear about this. Ichika is everything you’re not. She doesn’t fly off as fast as she can the first time something’s hard or boring. She cares about people. She takes care of people. She does what she thinks is right.

I hate you with all my heart for these wings. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, I hope you feel that somewhere in your pathetic little soul.

• • • •

Shoko found Daishiro sitting at the counter, reading a magazine. She was still furious from writing the letter. Anger rose from her like steam.

“I need time off school,” she snapped. “I’m not going tomorrow.”

Daishiro looked at her, nonplussed. With a brush of cynicism, he said, “You’re not?”

Shoko got louder. “I never miss school. I’m never even sick. I’ve done the restaurant’s books by myself since I was fourteen.”

A shadow crossed Daishiro’s face; Shoko knew he was ashamed of having to rely on her for the business.

“If we need to talk about the restaurant—”

She cut him off again. “I need this. I do everything I’m supposed to. Everything and more! I’ve earned some slack. You owe me, and you know it.”

“Stop.” Daishiro held up his hand. “We can sit and talk politely about whether you need to take off a couple of days—”

“A couple of days? No! I can’t go back that fast—”

A couple of days. I’m not going to let you just sit home and do nothing.”

Shoko glared. “Fine.”

“I didn’t agree,” he said. “I said we could talk about it. Politely.”

Shoko rocked on her heels. Her anger had become a drawstring, pulling every muscle taut. “You owe me.”

“Tell me what happened with a capella,” Daishiro said.

Shoko’s gaze flickered away from his face. “Nothing.”

Daishiro pressed. “Then why aren’t you going?”

Shoko’s hard gaze flickered back. “I already said.” It wasn’t a lie this time.

“I don’t believe you.”

Shoko shrugged, tightly.

“If you want me to agree, tell me,” Daishiro said.

Shoko spat her answer. “I quit.”

It got the reaction she wanted. Daishiro looked shocked.

“What?” he asked. “Why?”

Shoko barely had time to register satisfaction at his expression before it reeled toward nausea. How she felt about Ichika was private. She didn’t want her father to know. She didn’t want anyone to know. It was one thing to have it in her head, but saying it to someone else, that would grow her wings for sure.

She said, “It was taking too much time.”

“But the girls in a capella are your friends—”

Shoko shouted, “I do not need the girls in a capella!”

Daishiro stammered for a moment. “I didn’t say—”

The bedroom door slammed behind her.

• • • •

Shoko lay in bed, fuming, until emotional exhaustion put her to sleep. It was night when she woke up. Daishiro had gone to bed. She checked her back; she didn’t feel any wings.

She looked through the darkness outside her window, over the gentle slosh of black waves. The moon, along with the spill of smoky yellow lights from the pier, gave a weird light to see by.

She went out to put on her wetsuit.

Shoko had been sneaking out of the house since she was little. She’d never been caught. She was expert at making sure she was in bed, dry, and completely clean of sand and salt before Daishiro woke up.

Her wetsuit matched the black water. It was shiny and sleek like seal skin.

She took a deep, salty breath above the surface and then dove. She skimmed above the shallow ocean bottom, kicking through seaweed. In the shallow water, she could make out the shapes of sand and rocks. A silver glint marked the silhouette of a fish turning away.

She followed the ocean floor until burning in her lungs forced her to swim upward. Cold air hit her face as she broke the surface.

She flipped onto her back to float for a while. Under the almost windless darkness, the black water was faintly rippled like old glass. Saltwater drops occasionally flecked through her lips. They tasted like waves.

Eventually, she had to go back to shore. Her wetsuit made her feel like a seal, but she wasn’t.

On the pier, there was no one. A few black shapes—gulls—stood on the edge of the pier, occasionally stretching their wings.

Shoko went into the little gated area she and her father kept for privacy next to the house. She rinsed herself off, cold water shivering down her spine. She pulled her wet hair out of the way to unzip the wetsuit. The neoprene clung stubbornly to her skin, making rude, sodden noises as she tried to pull it off.

• • • •

Ichika started texting in the morning before school started.

Shoko! You’re not here! Are you OK?

Are you sick? I hope not. Sniff.

Maybe it’s good you missed today. I was too tired to help Hitomi with her baking last night. She’s so obsessed right now, it’s the only thing she likes—she was almost going to cry so I said okay, today you can practice on your own, I’m here if there’s an emergency, and so on. The buns came out . . . Well . . . Maybe it’s good you’re not here.

Soooo tired.

I will not fall asleep in math class . . . I will not fall asleep in math class . . .

I did not fall asleep during math class.

I’m just so tired. I know I already said . . . I couldn’t figure out what to cook last night, Dad didn’t buy groceries again and Hitomi won’t eat any more instant ramen. I made stew out of leftovers in the fridge. It was fine but then there was so much homework and lately I can’t sleep a lot of the time . . .

I hope you’re not too sick. Tell me how you’re doing when you can.

• • • •

Shoko glared at the photographs in the tin. She plucked a few as if she were pulling the legs off a bug. She flipped through them:

Her mother, heavily pregnant, with her face washed out so she was basically all belly.

Daishiro, holding up a grimacing dead fish and trying to make the same face.

The two of them lying face down on the beach to sunsoak, half a meter apart, not touching at all except for their hair which wound together on the sand.

Her mother, squinting at an unappealing appetizer that looked like a lumpy, reddish knot.

Her mother, making a face after biting in.

Her mother, pretending to force-feed it to Daishiro while Daishiro pretended to resist.

An accidental shot of a broom leaning against the wall.

Shoko went back to the previous photograph. There weren’t many pictures that showed her mother and Daishiro facing each other. Her mother hadn’t quite managed to get the appetizer into Daishiro’s mouth, but he was laughing with his mouth open so she was about to.

The picture was blurry. Shoko scrutinized their faces, trying to see what they were thinking about each other behind their out-of-focus eyes, but she just couldn’t tell.

• • • •

The day passed, and the night, and another day. Shoko spent as much time as she could in the ocean, which was too little time.

Ichika kept texting.

Yesterday, Yua and Niko got into a fight. I guess they’ve been telling each other about sneaking out at night to go on dates—so they decided to sneak out at the same time—turns out they’re dating the same guy. Everyone’s taken sides. It’s Yua versus Niko and no one will let you stay out of it and I can’t stand it.

I couldn’t focus on geography last night. Hitomi wasn’t feeling well so I was up until two anyway, but I couldn’t concentrate. I ended up doing housework. At least the bathrooms are clean now . . .

When you’re back, you should see the new dance Chizue worked up for a capella. Tons of leaping around. I think we all bruised our butts. It was so hilarious.

I miss you. I wish there was someone else here who wanted to talk about something other than Yua and Niko.

If you need something, I can get it for you. Hitomi needs help with her kanji, but I’ll figure it out.

I really hope you’re okay.

• • • •

There were so many feathers in Shoko’s bed the next morning. Handfuls. She scooped them up and dumped them in the ocean. They didn’t sink fast enough.

• • • •

Shoko turned off her phone so she wouldn’t have to read Ichika’s texts. She wrote to her mother.

I know we’re not your only family. Dad didn’t want to tell me, but I’m not stupid. You already had your wings when you met him.

He told me you confessed you’d done it before—and that you wouldn’t tell him anything else, not how many times, not where you left them, not even one name. He said you talked like there were dozens.

Maybe you refused to say because you lost count. Do you even remember me? I doubt it.

How many sisters do I have? How many of us did you leave all alone? To try to learn what we are without anyone to talk to? No one to talk about what’s going on? And about what happens next? You could have at least told us each other’s names, then at least we’d have someone. But I guess then you’d have to admit flying away when you didn’t want us didn’t just make us disappear.

It’s like you’re a shred of a person, you don’t care about anyone but yourself. How did you ever love anyone enough to get wings?

• • • •

Sunday morning was cold. Shoko sat on the pier in front of the restaurant, the wind vicious across her shoulders. The waves were too bad-tempered and dangerous for swimming. Two seagulls, fighting over a pastry, pecked at each other, each keeping a beady eye on the treat in case there was a chance to grab it and fly off.

Ichika’s voice blew toward her along with the whining of the wind.

Shoko!

Shoko froze, barely stopping herself from turning around without thinking. The voice got louder. Shoko told herself to pretend it was just another gull.

Shoko! Are you okay?

Slowly, Shoko tilted her head just enough for her to see Ichika in the corner of her eye. She was wearing a downy red coat and jogging toward her. Her voice got louder.

I can make rice porridge tonight if you want me to bring some!

Just gulls, Shoko told herself. Gulls crying out over the beach.

“Oh, thank goodness, Shoko.” Ichika’s voice was too close now for it to be anything else but her; it was too rhythmic and light on her breath. “I just needed to see you were okay.”

Shoko stood up. She let her hair fall over her face so she could barely see anything but where she was going. She rushed toward the restaurant, her feet making hollow noises on the planks.

“Did you hear what I said about the porridge?” Ichika asked. Her voice cracked. “I don’t understand. What did I do? Why won’t you answer my texts? Did you get hurt? Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry, Shoko.”

Shoko was shaking by the time she made it to her door. Without meaning to, she looked back. Ichika’s ice-blue eyes looked like glaciers that had suddenly cracked. The corners of her mouth weren’t just turned downward; they’d begun to sink in, as if her face might collapse into itself.

Shoko choked. She was sobbing. “You didn’t do anything!” The door banged closed behind her.

Her heart thumped. That hadn’t been enough to grow her wings, had it? She fumbled her hand along her back. She didn’t feel anything.

Daishiro, standing by the storage cabinets and frowning at his supplies, turned rapidly at the sound of her crying. “Shoko? What’s going on?”

She made helpless gestures, trying to wave him off. Her face was getting messy. She should be alone.

Instead, Daishiro was up close, holding out a tissue box. “Take one.”

She didn’t.

He pulled out a tissue. “Come on, wipe your eyes.”

She grabbed it resentfully, even though it did feel better to swipe at her face. Her cheeks stung.

Daishiro backed off. Shoko felt a little more like she could breathe. Her tears ebbed.

Shoko’s raw voice scraped her throat. “I’m not going back to school. Never, not ever, I’m not going back.”

Daishiro’s worried face wrinkled with new anxiety. He held out his hand to take her wet tissue and tried to give her the box. “No, that’s not an option.”

“I won’t go!”

“Whatever is going on has been going on long enough,” Daishiro said. “Your time off isn’t making you any better.”

“You can’t make me attend class—”

Daishiro broke in, voice raised. “Stop yelling.”

Daishiro wasn’t shouting, but he didn’t usually raise his voice at all. Shoko flinched. She hadn’t meant to yell. Guilty surprise drained quickly into resentment: so what if she’d yelled, she deserved to yell.

She set her jaw instead of apologizing.

Daishiro said, “Whether you do the books or not, you’re still a child, and you’re still my daughter.”

Shoko’s voice was quiet, but cold as stone. “You can’t make me go. You’re not going to drag me in by my ear.”

They stared at each other in a hostile stalemate.

Daishiro said, “Go to your room.”

He pushed the box of tissues toward her.

Shoko took it. “Fine.”

• • • •

Shoko had one of those dreams with her mother in it. She didn’t have them often anymore.

She’d always imagined her mother’s wings as dovelike before. Now, she saw her with sparrow wings.

“What are you planning to do?” her mother asked. There was a smug little twist to her lips. “Never fall in love?”

“Yes.”

Her mother waved off Shoko’s answer. “Don’t be silly. Won’t you miss Ichika?”

“I don’t care.”

Her mother gave a full-hearted laugh. “If it’s not Ichika, it’ll be someone else.”

Shoko braced herself. She could feel her mother’s condescension closing in on her like a humid cloud, draining her resolve. “I shouldn’t have to give up the sea because I fall in love.”

Shoko’s mother ruffled her wings. Her feathers were beautiful, black striating shades of warm brown.

Her mother said, “All women lose things when they fall in love. Most of them don’t get the sky in exchange.”

Shoko scoffed. “What did you lose?”

“Ah.” The essence of her mother’s expression didn’t change, but she made a small, resigned noise. “I lost my freedom like most women.”

Freedom?” Shoko repeated. “How did you lose your freedom? You leave everything.”

A shrug rippled through her mother’s shoulders and into her wings. “Home and family call me when I’m in the sky, and the sky calls me when I land.”

She leaned forward to touch Shoko on the nose. It was almost intimate.

“You shouldn’t have to choose,” her mother said, “but you do.”

• • • •

When she woke just after midnight, Shoko turned on her phone. There was a message from Ichika. Part of it was visible on the front screen.

Shoko . . . If you want me to leave you alone, please tell—

To read the rest, she’d have to unlock it.

A lump thickened in her throat. She put the phone on her nightstand, face down.

She went out to swim in the moonlight. The cold was welcome, the darkness companionable. The sloshing in her ears made everything seem distant.

Was the sea so much? Shoko turned her face upward, evaporation chilling her cheeks. Chin just above the water, she watched both the moon and its reflection which rippled in the black, breaking now and again with the wind’s exhalations. In the night, with the waters stretching dark and peaceful to the horizon, the sea was so, so much.

One way or another, something was over.

Time breathed in and out.

The night hung like the stars.

Waves answered the wind with murmurs and sighs.

Salt clung to the scents of seaweed and chill air.

The moon tipped westward.

Shoko knew her answer, and she hated it.

In the morning, she’d write to Ichika. She’d tell the girls at a capella that the scheduling conflict was over. If Ichika forgave her, they’d sit in practice holding hands. If Ichika didn’t forgive her, well—Shoko’s mother was right. Eventually, it would be someone else.

She could live her life without the sea better than she could always running from love.

Shoko pressed her hands together, like a blade, like a prayer, and dived to break the moon.

All that was for morning. For now, she swam.

Thanks to Akemi Marshall for her advice and expertise.

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky graduated from the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2005, and holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her short stories have been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Locus Award among others. She’s also twice won the Nebula Award, once for her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window,” and again for her short story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” Her first collection, Through the Drowsy Dark, is available from Aqueduct Press; her second, How the World Became Quiet, came out from Subterranean Press in 2010. Visit her website, chat with her on Twitter, or support her on Patreon where she posts one new piece of fiction or poetry each month.