Annajane - by Peter Rock
Last night Nemo had gotten in a fight with another neighborhood cat, so this morning a small pile of cat fur shifted along the sidewalk. Crows gathered it in their sharp beaks, jerked their heads from side to side, then scattered at the sound of the screen door, opening.
Macy and Annajane came through the door, outside, not noticing the crows. They walked away from the house; they covered blocks without talking to each other; they crossed streets, finding their way as if by accident into the park above the river.
Macy and Annajane didn’t plan to slow, to stop, but they were drawn to the public swimming pool, and stood pressed against the chain-link fence, staring in. At least a hundred children splashed and shrieked in the water or stood dripping on the concrete, eating bright red and blue popsicles.
“It’s hardly changed,” Macy said. “It’s been almost twenty years.”
Annajane glanced at her older sister—her thick, untweezed brows, her dark hair in a messy braid, the pale freckles across her nose, her brown eyes people sometimes called ‘intelligent’—but did not answer right away. Instead, she squinted through the fence again; the lifeguards were high school girls in red bathing suits and visors, silver whistles shining around their necks. The slack-skinned mothers stretched out, tanning in bikinis, talking on cell phones while the children kept swimming, screaming, shivering. Some of the children were sisters, no doubt, so young and they’d be sisters all their lives. There was no undoing it.
“It has changed,” Annajane said. “For one thing, we’re closer in age to the mothers than we are to the lifeguards, not to mention the kids. We could’ve gone to school with some of the mothers. Recognize anyone?”
“It’s not one or the other,” Macy said. “What a way to think.”
Annajane and Macy had swum at this pool, when they were younger, back when they both lived here in Portland, in the house on Spokane Street. They still said they were from here, though they’d moved away to Ohio after elementary school. Macy had come back for college, then moved away again—now she lived in Boston, Massachusetts, and attended graduate school. Psychology. Annajane moved here later, only she did not go to college.
“I’d rather be one of the lifeguards,” Macy said, “a whistle bouncing between my tits like that.”
“You wouldn’t get much bounce,” said Annajane, smiling.
“Let’s walk,” Macy said, already turning, heading under the trees. “Stumptown,” she said, her voice low and sing-song. “The Rose City. River City. Puddletown. Rip City.”
She wore bowling shoes, a 10 printed on each heel. That was a cool kind of shoes to have, stolen from an alley. Her workpants were cut off below the knee, her belt buckle round and shiny, wide, as if from a rodeo; her faded blue t-shirt had a bear on it. Annajane followed in her white sandals, her summer dress—sleeveless, with yellow flowers.
“You just seem a little down,” Macy said. “Not yourself, quite.”
“I’m not down,” Annajane said. “What’s that supposed to mean? That’s about as nice as telling someone they look tired. And I certainly am myself.”
Macy walked a little ahead, so not talking wasn’t as awkward. Annajane knew that there were conversations that they could have but that they wouldn’t have: About how Macy had not come to check on her, for their parents or for herself, and that no one was worried about Annajane, even if they should be. About how everyone knew that Annajane was the pretty one—taller, more slender, skin clearer, her curly hair lighter—and yet Macy had always had the boyfriends. These topics would not come up; they also wouldn’t talk about what to do next, or how long Macy was planning to stay. She had arrived yesterday, and could stay as long as she wanted—Annajane’s apartment had two floors, and a futon in the living room downstairs.
Last night, after the sisters had gone to bed, Annajane had heard Macy go out. There were boys on the street, teenagers trying to do skateboard tricks, the wood of their decks slapping the street; they did this often, and it made sleeping difficult. Watching from her bedroom window, Annajane had seen her sister, and the three boys, and her cat, Nemo—he was outside, in the driveway, also watching as Macy told the boys off. She told them how skating used to be about hills and speed, empty swimming pools and flow, not just stupid tricks that they couldn’t even do. The boys had skated off, only daring to shout ‘bitch’ at her when they were half a block away. Annajane had to admire Macy for that.
“I heard you last night,” she said. “Telling those boys.”
“They were trying to videotape each other. How stupid is that?”
The sisters were walking across the park, over the white lime that lined the baseball diamond. Some kids had climbed on top of the backstop, and were standing on the chain-link, where it hung over, twenty feet off the ground. Probably they’d fall off and break their necks. Below, dogs sniffed each other, rolled in trash, kicked out their hind legs, proud after taking a crap. Their owners trailed, hands in plastic bags. The sound of the plastic made birds rise and settle in the trees’ branches overhead. Annajane heard the black wings.
Macy slowed, then turned. “Hey,” she said. “You want to get high?”
“I don’t do drugs,” Annajane said. “Jesus. Everyone I work with at the park is into that. What could be more boring?”
“Just testing you,” Macy said. “I don’t have any, of course.”
“Is that some of your Psychology strategy?” Annajane said.
“No. That’s from the big sister handbook.”
At the edge of the park, the land sloped steeply away and the grass grew long. The sisters looked out at the river, boats moving toward the city, everything more beautiful and slow from a distance. Closer, the rollercoaster and Ferris wheel of Oaks Amusement Park stood, a wave of screams rising; bright white balls of cotton candy were visible, even from here. Annajane worked at Oaks Park, selling cotton candy and other concessions; she also sold beer at the minor league baseball games, downtown. The team was named the Beavers.
Macy stopped part way down the slope, then sat down. “Are you wearing red underwear?” she said. “I can see it through your dress.”
Annajane sat next to her. She wanted to reach out and touch the fine, thin hairs on Macy’s arm, but she did not. She looked away; on this side of the parking lots were the train tracks and then a field of tall, golden grass. To the right stretched a swampy expanse of black water, a waterfowl refuge. The metal electrical towers on the far side had flat platforms atop them, where geese had nests.
When Annajane turned back, Macy was laid out flat, looking up at the sky and clouds. Annajane did the same.
“Your place is pretty nice,” Macy said. “Big.”
“I like having two floors,” Annajane said. “One of my favorite things is being downstairs with Nemo, then watching him walk away, climbing the stairs, disappearing, and then after a moment I can hear his footsteps overhead, and I imagine him walking alone through the empty rooms, sniffing my things.” She closed her eyes. “That reminds me of that cat we had—”
“Right. I remember one time you pretending to be his mother, licking him all over, getting fur all over your tongue.”
“You,” Macy said. “That’s one of your fantasies. You tell them enough times, you get so you believe them.”
“How about that favorite shirt you had, in fourth grade, the Seahawks jersey, how you wouldn’t take it off, no matter what Mom promised, and then Jake Deaver got one just like it?”
“Now that I remember,” Macy said. “What a crushing blow.”
An insect buzzed in Annajane’s ear; she felt its tiny legs, and sat up again, shaking her head, facing Oaks Park. At this angle, the Ferris wheel looked oblong, tall and thin, like something that could never roll.
“I used to like to go there,” Macy said, watching her. “In college—eat a corndog, ride the Tilt-A-Whirl.”
“It’s easier to be ironic about it if you don’t have to work there. I’m thinking of being a librarian.”
“You don’t even like to read,” Macy said.
“I like the idea of it, though.”
“Reading, or being a librarian?”
“Don’t you want to go down there, introduce me to your friends or something?”
“I don’t have any friends down there, only people I know—people who like to shout, who like to catch eighth graders having sex in the Haunted Mine. Half are stoned, like I said, and the rest are tweaking.”
“The eighth graders?” Macy said.
“The people I know.”
“I used to have a boyfriend,” Macy said, “when I lived here, in college. We’d go to Oaks Park, then walk back through here, screw in that field down there, all that tall itchy grass. I can’t even remember his name.”
Annajane looked out across the field, imagining it. The word made her think of a corkscrew, suggested a turning motion, the boy on top and spinning as if a huge hand had grasped and turned him—his face at Macy’s face, then their bodies at right angles, then feet to faces, around and around. Or Macy could be on top, spinning, or he could be behind her, in that position, screwing; she’d be on all fours and him behind, his knees on the ground, then his head on the ground, turning like that, always connected at that one point.
“Annajane?” Macy was saying, “Do you have a boyfriend? I can’t believe I haven’t asked you that, yet.”
“Me neither,” Annajane said. “Who’s that, down there? What’s he doing?”
She pointed. Down near the edge of the water, where it met the field, a man was setting up something—a tripod. He was far enough away that Annajane could turn her hand and blot him out. She took down her hand and watched as he fixed a camera atop the tripod, pointed it at the water, then stepped back and walked a circle around it. He was thin, and seemed to be wearing a suit and tie, his head jerking from side to side, elbows jutting out, his thin legs cutting the air. He lifted his feet high so his black shoes were visible.
Suddenly he looked up at where Annajane and Macy sat, his face flashing, gazing and holding as if he were thinking about them, as if he could see all the way into what would happen next, where their decisions would lead them. Then, without warning, he bent down and lifted the edge of a blanket or sheet—the same color as the tall grass, a kind of camouflage—and, flattening himself, disappeared beneath it.
“Whoa,” Macy said. “Let’s go find out what he’s doing. Let’s ask him.”
The camera looked lonely, pointing at the trees and the water. Every tree was full of birds, on every branch, but Annajane would not have noticed if not for the man’s attention, the way he left the camera like an arrow, alerting her.
“No,” she said. “I’d rather wonder.”
“Don’t be afraid,” Macy said. “The closer you get to something, the clearer it is.”
“That’s not true,” Annajane said.
“The less scary it is, anyway; then you’re inside, part of it.”
“And you can’t be afraid of yourself?”
“No,” Macy said.
“You should write a self-help book.”
“Maybe I will. I’ll dedicate it to you.”
“Thanks,” Annajane said.
“There are always startling things to do,” Macy said. “You can surprise yourself.”
“I hardly do anything else,” Annajane said.
Macy’s hair had come loose, and she was braiding it. Annajane raked her fingers through her own hair, then threw strands of dried grass to the side.
“You can always ask me questions about me, too,” Macy said.
“You’ll tell me what you want me to know.”
“It’s just the principle—not being so self-involved.”
Annajane pulled her feet close, crossed her ankles, and stood. She started down the slope, holding the skirt of her dress so it didn’t catch in the long grass.
“You want to walk?” Macy said, following, almost colliding with her at the bottom.
Annajane went ahead; she could hear her sister behind her. The narrow path ran right where the ground leveled out, and stretched to the narrow space between the slope and the swampy water.
“Wo, wo, wo, Eee,” Macy said, her voice low. She’d always been like that, making sounds, doing things without any self-consciousness, making it all right.
“Someone got raped down here,” Annajane said, “a couple weeks ago; some teenagers pulled a fake gun on her, and she tried to fight. Later, they stole her car and lit it on fire.”
Here, the slope was more like a cliff, looming on their right. Blackberry vines covered in thorns snarled the path down low, slashing at their shins. The sisters crossed a small wooden bridge, their footsteps hollow.
“Sometimes,” Annajane said, “I go back to the house on Spokane Street. At night.”
“Who lives there? You know them?”
“A young couple. They’re Asian, some kind. I like to stand out there and imagine they’re in love, kind of like Mom and Dad were, once, and that before long they’ll have two daughters, and then they’ll move, and a new couple will move in—”
Her story trailed off; she realized that Macy had stopped following. Annajane hurried back to where her sister stood. Macy was turned around, looking down the path, the way they’d come. The leaves overhead were thick; it was difficult to see the sky. The black water stretched a hundred yards across, close by. Dead trees twisted pale and broken from the surface, clusters of black crows perching in the branches. Carp thrashed, mating in the shallows near the shore.
“Where’s the guy with the camera?” Macy said. “I can’t see him.”
“He blends in,” Annajane said.
“We must have passed where he was.”
“Let’s go,” Annajane said. “You lead for a while.”
They walked until they reached the place where a huge concrete building rose, on the right, built straight into the slope. There were no windows, but a painting of a fifty foot tall Great Blue Heron covered the broad, pale wall, looming above the path. The bird was visible from the amusement park, from all the way across the river. Staring, it balanced on its thin legs; it had been painted there as a kind of distraction, for the building was a mortuary, a mausoleum, a crematorium. Everyone knew that.
“Let’s go up this way,” Macy said, pointing to a narrow path worn through the bushes, up the steep incline.
Annajane followed, gripping exposed roots; behind her, she heard a wave of screams, rising and falling, from the amusement park. She paused next to Macy, at the wall of the crematorium, where a sleeping bag had been abandoned. Dirty, it was all twisted up, surrounded by some torn magazines and cigarette butts, playing cards.
“Maybe someone lives here.”
They kept going, around the side of the building, passing one narrow window that had old bars across it. Annajane leaned close, smelling the rust as she squinted through. Inside, cardboard boxes were stacked; she wondered if they might be full of dead people’s clothes.
“Hurry up,” Macy said, kicking dirt down behind her.
On level ground again, the sisters climbed a low fence and emerged into the schoolyard, the exact same one they had played in so long ago. Llewellyn Elementary School. They crossed the playing field without talking, the sparse grass dead for the summer, and walked under the same old outdoor shelter—a roof without walls, because it always rained during the school year. The blue plastic slide was new. The yellow four-square and kickball lines had been freshly painted on the cracked blacktop.
“Everything looks so small,” Annajane said.
“There’s someone inside,” Macy said.
Both sisters leaned close, their foreheads against the smooth glass, their bare arms touching as they squinted into the dim classroom. A person, facing away from them, was bent down, working on something. It was a man, his hair thin and pale, shorn close and full of cowlicks in the back; as he turned, they saw that the front angled to a sharp widow’s peak.
“How’d he get here so fast?” Macy said, and it was only then that Annajane realized it was the same man as before, with the camera and tripod, the camouflage blanket.
He heard them. He saw them. He stepped closer, standing there; only the glass kept him from touching them, yet he did not appear to be angry at being observed. Instead, he nodded at them with a sort of smile, then reached out and tapped at the window, the tip of his finger flattening against the pane.
“The side door,” he said, pointing. “Go around, and I’ll meet you.”
Macy took hold of Annajane’s arm, just above the elbow. “This was what I was talking about,” she said. “An adventure. Not being so tentative.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Annajane said.
They followed the brick wall around back, to the door—they remembered where all the doors were. They leaned close to this one, squinting through the wire mesh in the window, at the dim, empty hallway. No one was there; no one was coming.
Annajane turned, looking back across the playground, where two men walked back and forth across the field, each holding a metal detector. They swung the metal handles, sweeping the flat discs slowly above the ground. She had seen this before, in the field of the middle school near her apartment. But those were different men—
She heard the door open, behind her, and now the man’s face looked down at them. He was not much older than they were—and tall, thin, wearing a tweed jacket that was a size or two too small. He swung the door wide, an expectant look on his face.
“Your fly’s open,” Macy said, stepping past him, inside.
“Nice belt buckle,” he said.
The three of them walked, footsteps echoing from the linoleum. The man wore black shoes, heavy cap-toed oxfords. Brass coat hooks lined one wall, low; blobby watercolors of cars and trees hung on the other side. The only light spilled through open classroom doors, from distant windows. The man paused and stood in one of these wedges of light; he turned slightly to face Macy and Annajane.
“I wasn’t certain you’d actually come,” he said. “Let me tell you that my name is Edmund.”
Even in the darkness, his white teeth flashed. They were crooked, and made his mouth seem clean and sharp as he spoke. Annajane liked that.
“We’re sisters,” Macy said, whispering.
“But not twins,” he said. “This way.”
The air smelled of paste, of dust. They passed the double doors that led to the cafeteria, the vast room that also served as the auditorium, all the folding chairs lined up. Annajane heard an aquarium bubbling, somewhere nearby, then gone, and also another faint sound, just beyond the echo of their footsteps. The man led them around a corner and the sound grew louder—birds, and a mechanical clatter, loud birds, cawing, as if they were fighting. Closer, she saw the classroom door, tangled shadows spilling out across the floor, from inside.
“Here,” Edmund said, standing to one side. “This is where it’s happening.”
She stepped inside, then stood still, overwhelmed. The room was empty, and it was not empty. The shades were drawn, and huge black wings swept the walls, caught up in light. Black birds tore jagged holes in the white sky, wings as big as a person, and there were the shapes of people somehow behind them. The birds were also strutting on the ground, swooping through the air—blacker than electrical lines, blacker than the night sky.
And then the wings were gone, and one wall was bright white, and Annajane saw the old projector of heavy green metal, on a rolling cart, in the middle of the room. The fan whirred, heat chuffing out, dust caught the light, and the film’s loose tail slapped around and around.
“Ahh,” Edmund said. “Hold on, hold on.” He crossed the dark room in three long strides and switched on the overhead light.
Gradually, things became easier to understand. Around the walls hung crayon drawings of children, life-sized, bodies traced on butcher paper, outlines then colored in with rings and bracelets, favorite shirts, names scrawled below. The children hung like an audience as Edmund re-threaded the film and Macy stood next to him, watching. Annajane noticed that his shoes were two different sizes. She stepped past the terrarium with its heat lamp, a couple shells that probably held hermit crabs. The low chairs and desks were clustered together; she sat on top of one desk, where near-illegible graffiti said GET IT ON in blue ink.
“We went to school here,” Macy said. “I had second grade in this room. Mrs. Sullivan.”
“I’ve heard it’s a pretty good school,” Edmund said.
“Why are you filming the birds?”
“Only the crows,” he said.
“You must be an expert,” Macy said. “Tell us some facts about crows.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just like them. Their expressions, the way they interact, how smart and independent they are.”
Annajane just watched and listened. She liked the awkward way Edmund moved and talked, the odd looks of him. Sometimes she believed she’d find someone that only she recognized as attractive, that no one else did. He, Edmund, could be that person—only Macy, too, seemed curious about him, standing so close, asking all the questions. And Edmund seemed drawn to Macy, as well, talking only to her. Annajane was not surprised by this; she was both proud and envious of her sister.
Standing, Annajane pulled at the edge of the blind and looked outside, where the men with their metal detectors still paced and circled. Crows also walked around the schoolyard; perhaps they were the same crows from before, down in the fields; they lifted and settled when the men came too close. She suspected that there were men like these in every schoolyard of the city, and they all knew each other, and worked together, gathering for a larger a purpose, a strange network that most people would never anticipate—
“I have a lot of friends,” Edmund was saying to Macy. “If that’s what you’re thinking. I don’t even live alone. I’m not a lonely person, not at all.”
The projector’s fan kept going as he worked on it. Lights shone inside it, through the vents, striping Edmund’s shirt, the edge of Macy’s face.
“Don’t be afraid,” Macy said. “I’m just trying to understand it like you do. It’s wonderful, the crows. I don’t want to hold you at a distance.”
Suddenly it seemed possible to Annajane that the man had seen them before, had lured them here for some reason. And in the same moment she also realized that it was possible that Macy already knew Edmund—she saw the easy way they talked, the way they leaned close—and that they were playing a trick on Annajane. Perhaps Edmund was even the boyfriend, from years before, screwing with Macy in the field.
Edmund turned out the lights again. This time, it was easier to hear the sound—the voices of the crows, calling and answering, above the clatter of the projector. The crows were easier to see in black and white, their importance made all the clearer, and in the background twisted the dark silhouettes of the rollercoaster, the Ferris wheel. And then there was a shot of Edmund himself, checking his camera, walking around; it was almost as if it were the scene they had watched less than an hour before, as if the camera could be swung around to catch the sisters sitting on the hillside. Now the crows flew in a pack, no real formation, and perched in clusters. They didn’t like to be alone.
“Is there a story?” Macy said, stepping close so her shadow marked the wall. “Is there a beginning and an end?”
“I really want to show you,” Edmund said. “But there’s something else I’d like you to see, as well. Do you have time?”
“Of course we do,” Macy said.
Edmund hit the switch, and the wings disappeared, swallowed away. “Great,” he said. “Follow me.”
Annajane hurried to catch up. They were back in the hallway, going down a flight of stairs, into the basement.
“I’m the custodian,” Edmund said. “There’s no rush; I have all night, as long as I want to take.” Taking out a ring of keys, he opened a thick metal door and held it for them.
Inside, the air smelled of oil; it was hot, and the ceiling was low, covered in dim safety lights. The boilers took up most of the room, but there was also a stack of broken chairs and desks, a tangle of ropes. The door closed.
“I found this on my own,” he said. “No one told me about it.” He brushed past them, in the tight space, and began shifting a folding table that leaned against the far wall. This exposed a vent two feet square, covered with wire mesh. Hooking his fingers through the mesh, he pulled it out, then set it to one side.
“After you,” he said.
Macy did not hesitate. She bent down and disappeared through the dark gap. It was as if she expected it, as if she and Edmund were showing Annajane something.
“Where are we going?” Annajane said.
“Underground,” he said. “Trust me.”
“You go first,” she said.
He did, and after a moment she followed, slowly straightening up in the darkness.
The air was cooler, here. Damp. She could hear Edmund’s breathing, and Macy’s. Underfoot, the ground felt like a metal grate. Someone touched her, her arm.
“Follow me,” Edmund said. “Both of you. This way.”
She could barely make out the shape of his body, and of Macy’s. The three of them walked deeper, away from the pale square they’d come through. After a moment, Annajane could see needles of light, slanting down from above, through some kind of vent; she wondered if they were beneath the field, if the metal detectors overhead were beeping at her metal watchband, at Macy’s belt buckle. She heard water, somewhere, very faintly. She wondered if she and Macy would ever be aboveground again.
There was a scratching sound, a sound of shifting metal, and suddenly a square of light shone, down low, a kind of door like the one they’d come through. How far had they walked? Had it been a straight line? That was impossible to say.
“You two go ahead,” Edmund said.
Annajane scraped her spine on the way through. At first, the room she entered seemed like the same boiler room, but it was slightly different, more narrow, without the broken chairs. Her feet were dirty, in her white sandals, the tops of her toes black. Macy had been better prepared, in her bowling shoes and work pants. Now Macy stood next to her; she winked at Annajane as Edmund emerged from the hole in the wall. Standing, he held his right arm out straight, brushed it off with his left hand, and then brushed his left arm with his right hand.
“Yes,” he said. He stepped past them and opened a door.
The light through the doorway shone clean, heavy and silent. A bouquet of flowers hung in a brass holder that was screwed into a marble wall; beneath it was a small plaque, someone’s name. The three of them now stood in the hallway, which ran only twenty yards or so, with stairs—going up and going down—on either end.
“Is someone’s whole body in there?” Macy said, reading the plaque, “or is it just ashes, or what?”
“It’s closed until later,” Edmund said. “Let’s split up, and wander around by ourselves, and then see who has the best story when we’re all together again.”
It happened that quickly. Annajane stood there as Macy and Edmund walked away from her, in opposite directions. After a moment, she followed her sister; at the end of the hall, where Macy had descended the stairs, Annajane climbed upward, past marble busts, women without arms.
The next floor was even brighter, whiter, with windows facing onto the street. A red car passed, outside; the woman driving stared straight ahead. Inside, the floors and walls shone. Everything was marble and metal, bouquets of flowers jutting sporadically from the walls, and everything was hiding dead bodies, tucking them in, all around her. Annajane kept walking. Somewhere in the building, she suspected, Edmund and Macy were together, two live bodies doing what they wanted to do, perhaps talking about her, laughing together. If she were them, she might do the same.
The floor beneath her feet shifted from marble to wood to red carpet to linoleum, and back again; the rooms stretched on and on; faint, classical music eased down from hidden speakers; she passed along a wall of tiny, metal doors like post office boxes, photographs of babies taped above names; she turned a corner and it was silent again.
She shivered, the cold, clammy air caught in the skirt of her dress, all against her skin. Through a window, she saw a duck pond, a small outside area with stone benches for grief and contemplation. Two fat geese stood plump and feathered on their orange legs, so white and round that she thought of cotton candy, of her job at the amusement park.
Further on, she came to the front entrance—a desk and phone, pamphlets about cremation and insurance. She pushed on the glass door and it swung out, warm air sweeping in. She could walk right out and away, if she liked; instead, she turned and headed back into the marble, the flowers and names. Boxes of Kleenex rested here and there, the puffs of tissue sticking out the tops like white hands, gestures of condolence. The walls were dark, wood paneling, and the rooms grew smaller, named after flowers; the signs hanging above their doorways read: HYACINTH, NARCISSUS. Behind glass, urns shone, standing like trophies, burnished and engraved, handles like ears. Annajane turned, facing a stained glass window. A bearded Jesus held up his hands, just below the words NOT MINE BUT THINE. Through the red and blue glass she could just make out the sharp branches of the trees below, the curved silhouette of the distant rollercoaster, the jagged, swooping shapes of wings.
Footsteps echoed, someone coming closer. Annajane stepped into a recessed doorway, and held her breath. After a moment, Edmund walked right past her, not noticing. She stepped out behind him and followed for twenty feet before he heard her and turned.
“Oh,” he said. “Hey. What do you think?”
“It’s quiet,” she said, her voice lower than his. “And it’s so cold.”
He swallowed, his sharp Adam’s apple rising and falling. Six inches taller than Annajane, he looked down and smiled, his teeth sharp and interlocking. He wore three rings on his fingers; she had not noticed that before. Now he seemed to be reaching to her, to touch her face or tuck her hair behind her ear, but instead he tapped a brass plaque behind her, the name engraved there.
“I had a sister,” he said. “This is my sister. Her name was also Macy.”
Annajane turned to read the name; she tried to believe it was a coincidence.
“I come here almost every day,” he said, “and stand here, but only when it’s closed. Only when I can be alone with her.”
“Where’s my sister?” Annajane said. “Did you do something with her?”
“You know,” he said, “when I first saw you two, I thought you were the one, but then I thought it was her, once we started talking, and now, now it’s you again.”
Annajane just listened. She wondered if he were suggesting they should have sex together. She could almost feel the scratch of his tweed jacket against her skin, the smell of his clean, sharp breath. She had never had sex before, though often she told people that she had. Often enough that to recognize it as a lie startled her. If Edmund did propose having sex, she decided, she would go along with him.
“I think crows have a lot of fun,” he was saying. “They’re really quite nice to each other, if you take time to understand it.”
“What?” she said. “What are we doing?”
“You’re right,” he said. “We should see what she’s found. We should get going before they open.”
“We could just go out the front door,” she said, but he didn’t seem to hear her.
At the end of the hall, they reached a stairway. Annajane thought she heard her name being called, faintly, from down below.
“Listen,” she said.
They clattered downward.
“Wait,” Edmund said, at the landing, “check this out.”
He slid open a panel in the wall, a handhold she had not seen, and revealed a window that was made of thick plastic, double-paned. Through it, Annajane could see a small, dark empty space; the floor of this space was like a conveyor belt, and seemed to be shifting, moving. Edmund stood close behind Annajane; she could feel the warmth of his body, his breath. And then, to the right, a box came sliding along, a long cardboard box, into that space. Next, flames shot out from every side, blue flames from metal nozzles. The box melted away, as much as it burned—the edges folding, disappearing, revealing the shape of the body inside, the arms lifting slightly in the heat, the legs crossing and then uncrossing. It was Macy, still alive and lying patiently in the flames; she turned her head to face Annajane through the window and smiled just as her hair went to cinders. Her clothes burned away, the belt buckle shining hot on her stomach. Her arms and legs trembled, then were still. Her head tilted back, ears gone. Flames rose from where her eyes had been—
Or perhaps, instead, more footsteps sounded, descending the staircase; Macy’s bowling shoes appeared, then the flash of her belt buckle, and then flowers, a bouquet in each hand.
“There you two are,” she said, smiling. “I’m getting hungry. I’m starving, in fact.”
“Me, too,” Annajane said, relieved, sliding the window closed.
“Let’s go, then,” Edmund said. He led the way.
For him, as they returned toward the tunnel, it was all about what Annajane wanted, whatever would give her the most pleasure. Because that had been agreed upon from the moment he first saw her, sitting all alone, lovely on that grassy hillside, by herself in that yellow dress. She had made him do it, asked him across that space to imagine it all—everything about her, the whole family. He had given her a sister, for everyone should have a sister named Macy, if only for a little while.
Annajane’s Macy might or might not be with them in the tunnel, a tunnel he wished were there, as they returned through its humid darkness, the echoes of their footsteps and low breathing. They were almost there. Edmund had chosen the name Annajane because it was his favorite.
Back in the school, they would be patient while he set up the projector in the auditorium, the vast room that also served as the gymnasium and the cafeteria, the wide floor that he’d buffed so many times. The huge white screen came down slowly, electrically, a bright window in the darkness. The three of them (or was it two, by then, or actually only him, alone?)—would sit on folding chairs, out in the middle of the wide, dark room, their shoulders not quite touching. And then the raucous voices, the calls, as the beam of light skimmed their heads and at last—after all the anticipation—the grand flutter, the shared pleasure of the enormous black wings.