Home > All the Birds in the Sky(8)

All the Birds in the Sky(8)
Charlie Jane Anders

Patricia walked through the playground after lunch with her face upcast, trying to keep pace with an unkindness of ravens passing over the school. The ravens gossiped among themselves, without letting Patricia in on their conversation—just like the kids at this school, not that Patricia cared.

She’d tried to make friends, because she’d promised her mom (and witches kept their promises, she guessed)—but she was joining this school in the eighth grade, after everyone else had been here a couple years. Just yesterday, she’d stood at the girls’ room sink next to Macy Firestone and her friends as Macy obsessed about Brent Harper blowing her off at lunch. Macy’s bright lip gloss perfectly set off her Creamsicle hair dye. Patricia, coating her hands with oily-green fake soap, had been seized by a conviction that she, too, ought to say something funny and supportive about the appeal, and yet the tragic insufficiency, of Brent Harper, who had twinkly eyes and moussed-up hair.

So she’d stammered that Brent Harper was The Worst—and at once she had girls on both sides of her, demanding to know exactly what her problem was with Brent Harper. What had Brent ever done to her? Carrie Danning spat so hard, her perfect blond hair almost lost a barrette.

The ravens flew in no formation Patricia could discern, even though most of the school’s lessons, this first week, had been about finding patterns in everything. Patterns were how you answered standardized-test questions, how you committed large blocks of text to memory, and ultimately how you created structure in your life. (This was the famous Saarinian Program.) But Patricia looked at the ravens, loquacious in their hurry to go nowhere, and could find no sense to any of it. They retraced their path, as if they were going to notice Patricia after all, then looped back toward the road.

What was the point of telling Patricia she was a witch, and then leaving her alone? For years?

Chasing the ravens, Patricia forgot to look down, until she collided with someone. She felt the impact and heard the yelp of distress before she saw whom she’d run over: a gangly boy with sandy hair and an oversized chin, who’d fallen against the chicken-wire fence at the playground’s edge and rebounded onto the grass. He pulled himself upright. “Why the hell don’t you look where you’re—”

He glanced at something on his left wrist that wasn’t a watch, and cursed way too loud.

“What is it?” Patricia said.

“You broke my time machine.” He yanked it off his wrist and showed her.

“You’re Larry, right?” Patricia looked at the device, which was definitely broken. There was a jagged crack in its casing and a sour odor coming from inside it. “I’m really sorry about your thing.

Can you get another? I can totally pay for it. Or my parents can, I guess.” She was thinking that her mom would love that, another disaster to make up for.

“Buy another time machine.” Larry snorted. “You’re going to, what, just walk down to Best Buy and get a time machine off the rack?” He had a faint scent of cranberries, maybe from some body spray or something.

“Don’t be sarcastic,” Patricia said. “Sarcasm is for feeble people.” She hadn’t meant that to rhyme, plus it had sounded more profound in her head.

“Sorry.” He squinted at the wreckage, then carefully unpeeled the strap from his bony wrist. “It can be repaired, I guess. I’m Laurence, by the way. Nobody calls me Larry.”

“Patricia.” Laurence held out his hand and she hoisted it three times. “So was that actually a time machine?” she asked. “You’re not joking or whatever?”

“Yeah. Sort of. It wasn’t that great. I was going to toss it out soon in any case. It was supposed to help me escape from all this. But instead, all it did was turn me into a one-trick pony.”

“Better than being a no-trick pony.” Patricia looked up again at the sky. The ravens were long gone, and all she saw was a single slowly disintegrating cloud.

*  *  *

AFTER THAT, PATRICIA saw Laurence around. He was in some of Patricia’s classes. She noticed that Laurence had fresh poison-ivy scars on both skinny arms and a red bite on his ankle that he kept raising his pant leg to inspect during English class. His knapsack had a compass and map spilling out of the front pouches, and grass and dirt stains along its underside.

A few days after she wrecked his time machine, she saw Laurence sitting after school on the back steps near the big slope, hunched over a brochure for a Great Outdoors Adventure Weekend. She couldn’t even imagine: Two whole days away from people and their garbage. Two days of feeling the sun on her face! Patricia stole into the woods behind the spice house every chance she got, but her parents would never let her spend a whole weekend.

“That looks amazing,” she said, and Laurence twitched as he realized she was looking over his shoulder.

“It’s my worst nightmare,” he said, “except it’s real.”

“You’ve already gone on one of these?”

Laurence didn’t respond, except to point to a blurry photo on the back of the leaflet, in which a group of kids hoisted backpacks next to a waterfall, putting on smiles except for one gloomy presence in the rear: Laurence, wearing a ridiculous round green hat, like a sport fisherman’s. The photographer had captured Laurence in the middle of spitting out something.

“But that’s awesome,” Patricia said.

Laurence got up and walked back into the school, shoes scuffing the floor.

“Please,” Patricia said. “I just … I wish I had someone to talk to, about stuff. Even if nobody can ever understand the things I’ve seen. I would settle for just knowing someone else who is close to nature. Wait. Don’t walk away. Laurence!”

He turned around. “You got my name right.” His eyes narrowed.

“Of course I did. You told it to me.”

“Huh.” He rolled that around in his mouth for a moment. “So what’s so great about nature?”

“It’s real. It’s messy. It’s not like people.” She talked to Laurence about the congregations of wild turkeys in her backyard and the vines that clung to the walls of the graveyard down the road, Concord grapes all the sweeter for their proximity to the dead. “The woods near here are full of deer and even a few elk, and the deer have almost no predators left. A fully grown buck can be the size of a horse.”

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