Home > All the Birds in the Sky(11)

All the Birds in the Sky(11)
Charlie Jane Anders

Theodolphus had lost his prey. This was the first time he had ever been inside a mall, and he was finding the environment overwhelming with all of the blaring window displays, and the confusing letter-number code on the giant map. For all Theodolphus knew, Laurence and Patricia had spotted him somehow, gotten wind of his plans, and laid an ambush. The housewares store was full of knives that moved on their own. The lingerie store had a cryptic warning about the Miracle Lift. He didn’t even know where to look.

Theodolphus was not going to lose his cool over this. He was a panther—or maybe a cheetah, some type of lethal cat, anyway—and he was just toying with these stupid children. Every assassin has moments when he or she feels the grip slipping, as though the cliff face is spinning away and a sheer drop beckons. They had talked about this very issue at the assassin convention a few months earlier: that thing where even as you pass unseen through the shadows, you fear everybody is secretly watching and laughing at you.

Breathe, panther, Theodolphus told himself. Breathe.

He went into the men’s room at the Cheesecake Factory and meditated, but someone kept pounding on the door asking if he was about done in there.

There was nothing for it but to eat a large chocolate brownie sundae. When it arrived at his table, Theodolphus stared at it—how did he know it was not poisoned? If he really was being watched, someone could have slipped any of a dozen substances into his sundae that would be odorless and flavorless, or even chocolate flavored.

Theodolphus began to sob, without making any sound. He wept like a silent jungle cat. Then at last, he decided that life would not be worth living if he couldn’t eat ice cream from time to time without worrying it was poisoned and he began to eat.

Laurence’s father came and picked up Laurence and Patricia half a mile from the mall, right around the time that Theodolphus was clutching his throat and keeling over—the ice cream had indeed been poisoned—and Patricia did what she mostly did when she talked to Laurence’s parents: make stuff up. “And we went rock climbing the other day, and white-water rafting, although the water was more brown than white. And we went to a goat farm and chased the goats until we tired them out, which let me tell you is hard, goats have energy, ” Patricia told Laurence’s father.

Laurence’s father asked several goat questions, which the kids answered with total solemnity.

Theodolphus wound up banned from the Cheesecake Factory for life. That tends to happen when you thrash around and foam at the mouth in a public place while groping in the crotch of your cargo pants for something, which you then swallow in a single gulp. When the antidote kicked in and Theodolphus could breathe again, he saw his napkin had the sigil of the Nameless Order on it, with an ornate mark that more or less said, Hey, remember, we don’t kill kids anymore. Okay?

This was going to require a change of tactic.

5

WHENEVER SHE COULD, Patricia escaped to the heart of the forest. The birds laughed at her attempts to mimic them. She kicked a tree. Nothing responded. She ran deeper into the forest. “Hello?

I’m here. What do you want from me? Hello!” She would have given anything to be able to transform herself, or anything else, so her world wasn’t just boring walls and boring dirt. A real witch ought to be able to do magic by instinct. She ought to be able to make mystical things happen, by sheer will, or with a profound enough belief.

A few weeks after the start of school, the frustration became too much. Patricia grabbed some dried-up spices and twigs from the basement of the spice house, went into the woods, and lit them on fire with kitchen matches. She ran around and around the tiny flame inside a shallow pit, doing nonsense chants and shaking her hands. She pulled her own hair and threw it into the flames. “Please,” she choked through tears. “Hello? Please do something. Please!” Nothing. She crouched on her heels, watching her failed enchantment turn to ash.

When Patricia got home, her sister, Roberta, was showing their parents camera-phone pictures of Patricia lighting a fire and dancing around it. Plus, Roberta had a headless squirrel inside a FoodPile bag, which she claimed was Patricia’s work. “Patricia is doing Satanic rituals in the woods,” said Roberta. “And drugs. I saw her doing drugs, too. There were shrooms. And 420. And Molly.”

“PP, we’re worried about you,” Patricia’s father said, shaking his head until his beard was a blur.

“PP” was his nickname for Patricia when she was a little baby, and when they were about to punish her he would start using it again. She thought it was cute when she was little, but when she got older she decided it was a subtle reference to her failure to be a boy. “We keep hoping you’re going to start growing up. We don’t enjoy punishing you, PP, but we have to prepare you for a tough world, where —”

“What Roderick is saying is that we spent a lot of money to send you to a school with uniforms and discipline and a curriculum that creates winners,” Patricia’s mom hissed, her jaw and penciled eyebrows looking sharper than usual. “Are you determined to blow this last chance? If you just want to be garbage, just let us know, and you can go back to the woods. Just never come back to this house.

You can go live in the woods forever. We could save a large sum of money.”

“We just want to see you become something, PP,” her dad chimed in.

So they grounded her indefinitely and forbade her to go into the woods ever again. This time instead of sliding food under her door, they kept sending Roberta up with a tray. Roberta put Tabasco and Sriracha chili oil on everything, no matter what.

The first night, Patricia’s mouth was burning and she couldn’t even leave her room for a glass of water. She was lonely and cold, and her parents had taken all of the stuff from her room that might entertain her, including her laptop. In her total boredom, she memorized some extra passages from her history book and she did all of the math problems, even the extra-credit ones.

The next day at school, everybody had seen the pictures of Patricia dancing around the fire, and of the squirrel with no head—because Roberta had sent them to her friends at high school, and some of Roberta’s friends had brothers and sisters who went to Canterbury. More people started giving Patricia weird looks in the hallway, and this one boy whose name Patricia didn’t even know ran up to her during Lunch Recess, yelled “Emo bitch,” and ran away. Carrie Danning and Macy Firestone, the theater kids, made a big show of checking Patricia’s wrists, because she was probably a cutter, too, and they were concerned. “We just want to make sure you’re getting the help you need,” Macy Firestone said, bright orange hair rippling around her heart-shaped face. The actual popular kids, like Traci Burt, just shook their heads and texted each other.

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