Authors: Maria Dahvana Headley
When I get into the house, my mom's rocking out in the living
room to something she's playing for my dad, and my dad's cracking himself up by making terrible jokes at her. I feel like I'm on the other side of thick glass.
All I want to do is hide from the people I love.
To spare them the thing I know is coming. I feel it. Both from outside, and inside of me.
Then, my mom: “Did you know that mice sing?”
Me (with effort): “Is that what you're playing? Mouse song?”
It sounds like electronic music, but apparently it's rodent in origin. It has a beat. Someone's added something to the little trills and whistles, and I don't even know what to do with that.
My mom: “This is like the mouse equivalent of . . . Barry White.”
Me: *raises eyebrows*
My mom: “It's true. Mouse seduction. The mice in the kitchen? Are probably getting it on right now.”
If she starts talking about mouse condomsâ
No. My mom mimics the mouse song at my dad, who mimics it back at her, and the two of them dissolve into the
snorting laughter of people who've cracked each other up since the Jurassic.
Okay, then, unrelated Henry and Greta parental hijinks.
I've been MIA all afternoon, prowling for Heyward. Giving her a chance to show herself. Nothing. Not a trace, not a sign, no one. No Breath ships above.
Am I uneasy? Yes. Hair standing up on the back of my neck? Absolutely. But no Heyward, so I'm just here, full of foreboding.
The mouse wooing song sounds like Magonia to me, like a flock of tiny strange birds.
I think about my childhood, sitting on the roof looking at constellations, hearing . . . something. And the reality, the crazy, crazy reality, that I was looking at my home, and that people from up there were trying to look back. Searching for me.
Maybe that's how everything is. Maybe everyone is looking for everyone.
That 52-hertz whale song Jason found online a few months ago at first made me way too sad. It made me think of injured squallwhales and acid rain.
Now though, I wonderâwhat if that whale, the “loneliest whale in the world,” is just, like, a really good singer? Maybe it's a soloist, and so no one interrupts it. Maybe it sings an incredible, spellbinding song that no one else can sing.
I mean, maybe it's like me, a weirdo in the world.
Maybe the lonely whale is flying through a dark ocean, making things out of water and salt, singing shipwrecks into statues. Maybe it's changing matter around, rather than singing in sorrow. Maybe it's something Magonian dropped down, fallen into the ocean, singing alone because the sky is out of reach.
My poor parents. I did the reverse of that whale, if it's
Magonian, anyway. I rose up into the sky.
I think my dad never believed I died. He's the one who spent most of my childhood with me in the hospital. Maybe he had to be a dreamer in order to manage being next to me in ambulances all the time. Otherwise, it would have been too terrible.
“What do you think it'd be like to ride a whale?” he asked me once, when I was still Aza the dying girl and he was my dad holding my hand in an emergency room, waiting for someone to help me stop coughing.
“I don't know,” I said.
“I think it would be like riding a zeppelin,” he said.
“It wouldn't be like that at all,” I said, coaxed. “I think it would be like hopping a fast train, but underwater.”
“So, like hopping a submarine?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What if we took off out of this hospital and became rail-riding submarine hobos?” my dad asked.
“We'd drown,” I said.
“Never,” he said. “You have no idea what we'd do. We'd wear diving suits, and the whole time we were under, I'd be the envy of every other creature in the ocean.”
“Because I'd be traveling with the whale-hitchhiking submarine queen of the depths.”
“And who would that would be?”
“My daughter. Obviously. I mean, if that daughter was willing to take me with her. I've got no experience whale-hopping.”
I rolled my eyes, but I was obsessed with my dad's stories, anytime, every time, falling out of his mouth like he was basically just one long string of yarn. It's no surprise that when I
came back from Magonia, my dad took almost no time at all to believe in me.
My mom, on the other hand, is the science in our house.
She took blood samples when I returned from Magonia, and all the oddities of previous Aza Ray were still in my blood. Different skin, same freak. All the weirdnesses of previous Aza Ray, the tilted wishbone of a solar plexus, the heart sidewaysâ
The things everyone categorized in my last body as Azaray Syndrome? X-ray Beth Marchon and she looks exactly the same. That didn't stop my mom from doing some research.
My mom spent the past fifteen years developing this mouse thing, trying to cure asthma, but also giving the drug she'd developed to me. Completely illegal, my mom's activities, and when we finally talked about it, she looked at me for a long time, and then she said, “If you ever had a kid and she was sick, nothing would keep you from trying to keep her safe. I would do it again. And much, much more.”
Did I mention that my mom is a badass? Did I mention that her team looks likely to get nominated for the Nobel Prize for the breath-holding mice? They might actually be curing asthma, and along with that, they might be making something that protects humans from inhaling toxins, enabling lungs to retain oxygen for long periods of time. Some of the drugs my mom's team has been working on deal especially with inherited diseases, but they have side effects for everyone else too, and who knows? A lot of the things on earth that could go wrong aren't immunological now, but warfare. My mom's team is making it so people's immune systems can be better able to respond to threats.
My parents. They've always believed in miracles, and I'm
not sure why. I've actually
the impossible. They haven't. Or if they have, I don't know about it.
If Heyward is down here, I'm worried about them too. She'd kill them, if she was assigned to do thatâ
Uneasiness twitches around my back brain. Every kind. But what am I supposed to do? Be paranoid all the time?
Here's my completely warranted other fear: my parents want Heyward back. I can tell. That's why I don't want them to know anything about her maybe being down here. Magonia poisoned her against humankind. She wants nothing to do with drowners. Even the ones who are her biological parents.
Sometimes I catch my mom standing out in the yard, looking up. I can't blame her. I feel like the Aza she's wanted has always been, for one reason or another, just out of reach.
My dad has this feeling too, but he's calm about it. He thinks his other daughter is coming home. He has a feeling. Won't say why, won't say how, but he has a feeling. That's my dad for you.
Said dad is currently standing on a ladder, hanging streamers he made in my honor. He's been obsessed with sailors' knots ever since I returned, but he can't quite get the hang of them. He made a long garland of net out of gold glitter yarn, so it's not exactly supposed to catch anything, but my dad sees me walk past and throws an anchor over my shoulder.
As he throws it, I get an unexpected FLASH of Caru. There's a whirring sound, a hum from far off in the sky, and I feel Caru's curiosity, his interest.
There's something about the whirr that sounds familiar to me. I try to focus, but Caru isn't having it. My heartbird's
looking at a Magonian naval ship in the far-off distance, the batsail stretched wide, and he's singing to it. There's strangeness in the batsail's song. Is it fear? It's intense, almost a painful sound to the song, something that grates against my ears, just for a second. But I can't figure out what it is, what kind of voice that might be.
Caru jets in the direction of this ship, and I see something just on the edge of my view, a fast black something, diving at the batsail.
The batsail shrieks in fury, and Caru is in pursuitâ
“Aza,” says my dad.
“Are you listening to me?”
“No,” I say, but that's done it, the connection's gone. I wrest myself out of the sky and pick up the “anchor” off my shoulder. It's made of chocolate, with a folded paper chain.
“Seriously?” I tell him, trying to sound normal.
“I took a class,” he tells me. “What am I supposed to do with this knowledge except make terrible things for my daughters' birthdays?”
My dad used to be the worst cook in creation. In the last year, maybe because I ate a whole lot of birdseed-ish granola stuff aboard
, my dad's cooking has either gotten better, or I've gotten more inclined.
Eli's hanging up a banner that says AZA RAY VERSION 2.0.
We look like a perfect family.
If you don't know about any of the things that make us Other.
I move to the kitchen and lurk there with Jason. That
vision from CaruâI try to get back in touch with him, but he's sending nothing.
I stare at the mice in their terrarium, watching them dive and hold their breath. Watching them run around in little mouse circles, all of them mutants.
, I think.
Someone's experimenting on you
. I feel like someone's experimenting on me too. Like there's a large someone up there, moving my heart around, seeing how far it can stretch.
Jason sits down opposite me, cake spatula in his hand.
“Going to say any words at all?” he asks me.
“Words.” I bite the insides of my cheeks.
I sing a Caru note again, but he doesn't respond.
With a flick of Jason's wrist my cake's painted with a ridiculously gorgeous version of the sky. The bottom, just above where it touches the plate, is full of constellations. The center of the cake already has a ship and a stormshark, surprising given Jason's experience with stormsharks. I wouldn't have thought he'd want to think about them again.
“I know it's selfish to be weird about my birthday when you had to actually plan my funeral,” I say. “But my birthday has always been weird. And now, Heyward. And . . . Caru keeps seeing something strange out in the sky somewhere. What ifâ”
Jason makes a squallwhale with a few scriggles of frosting. It's pretty good. It has a nicely articulated storm spine.
“I think I'm gonna go out later and just . . . see.”
Jason looks up and his eyes flash something I've never seen before.
“You're not going anywhere,” he says.
Then he's looking at the cake again and I'm not sure I even
heard that. He draws a wicked line of lightning down the center of the cake. It's like Van Gogh doing pastry. He leans over, kisses me, and lifts my cake. . . .
Butâdid he just kiss me and dismiss me?!
Did he just
me not to go looking for Heyward? Did that really just come out of his mouth? I feel something rising up in me, something about how he doesn't know, doesn't understandâ
And then my parents and Eli walk in, my dad blowing a noisemaker.
Here we all are, around the table in the dark, this glowing circle, and my family's singing “Happy Birthday.” The candles are lit, and there're seventeen of them.
For the first time in years, my wish doesn't have to be
please, let me
I close my eyes, grit my teeth, and blow the candles out. When I open them, Jason's watching me. I can't read the look on his face.
I cut the cake, slicing through the ship in the center, and giving him the piece with the squallwhale. I give each of my parents some clouds and Eli a stormshark. I give myself a piece of sky with nothing in it, so I can imagine Aza Ray Quel on my piece, and Caru singing with her.
So I can imagine everything I can't have.
Later, I walk Jason to his car, and we look out at the sky together, thinking our own thoughts, maybe the same, maybe not. I can see Magonia, because Magonia's everywhere. No Caru, but also no visible badness. A catamaran moving dozily across the clouds. A small pod of squallwhales, too far away to hear their
songs. The moon's full and yellow, and I almost cry, but I don't.
“Shooting star,” Jason says abruptly, and points. We both watch it arc across the sky, shockingly bright. It could be a message from one Magonian captain to another, or maybe it's just a piece of rock hurtling through the atmosphere. Sound and fury signifying zilch.
“What's going on with you? Really. What aren't you telling me?” Jason says, his left eyebrow so on point that I can't evade it. I feel like his brain has bored a hole in mine, and now he's wandering through all the skull passageways that, for anyone else, would only be accessible with six sets of keys and a series of increasingly arcane lock combinations.
Okay, then. Look at my soul if you want to look at it. It's a pissed-off soul.
I let loose. “Are you ordering me around on purpose?”
“What do you mean?”
You're not going anywhere
, I quote. Let me just say, if I was going anywhere, it'd be my business. Even if I
going to see if I could find Heyward.”
I don't know why I'm so irritated. Jason can be obnoxious. This is a thing I know. I can also be obnoxious. But there's something in the way he's been lately, something about how he's like . . .
So convinced he knows what's good for me. How does
know? I don't even know. But the more he acts like he knows everything about my future happiness, the more I'm like, THERE MAY BE DEVELOPMENTS.
“You don't know what Heyward's like,” he says.
“I don't? You mean I didn't have a giant battle with her last
year? On a ship? Apparently it wasn't me who did that. Wait, was it you?”