August 2008 Volume Two Issue Five
Invasive Species - Janni Lee Simner
I held tight to my little cousin's hand as we walked the road through Summerhaven, scanning the broken asphalt for weeds. Alex tugged at a stray thread on his faded Cookie Monster T-shirt and scuffed his sneakers against the ground. He'd been fidgety all day, like his skin was stretched too tight. Maybe it was just the heavy gray clouds, promising rain but giving us only another sticky summer day.
Maybe it was that for five years -- ever since the war -- our entire lives had been lived within a couple miles of this road. Thinking about it made me want to crawl out of my skin, too.
Alex spotted a puffy pink thistle poking through a crack in the pavement. He reached for it; I pulled him back. "Gloves on?" I asked.
Alex looked down at his bare hands, as if he had to think about that. He pulled his leather gloves out of his pockets, tried to put them on, and got his thumbs stuck in the finger holes. I helped him straighten them out.
"Gloves on!" he said, as if it had been his idea.
"Go for it, then."
Alex grabbed the thistle and pulled, throwing all his four-year-old strength into the job. The stem came up in his arms, wriggling like a thorny green snake, while its fluffy pink bloom thrashed back and forth, trying to break free. I opened my leather weed-gathering bag and Alex threw the thistle in. Once it was dead, we'd feed it to the goats and rabbits just like all the weeds.
"Take that, stupid plant." Alex laughed, as if hunting down killer weeds was all in a day's work. He'd never known a plant that was safe.
I knelt beside him and dug the thistle's roots out with my knife, ignoring the strap of my quiver as it dug into my shoulder. Sweat plastered my I ♥ Mount Lemmon T-shirt to my back. "Never forget the roots," I said. "They're the most dangerous part."
"Never forget the roots." Alex threw them into the bag, too, grinning like a preschooler learning his ABCs. Except there was no preschool anymore. No high school either -- I should have been a sophomore by now.
A bird cried out. I grabbed my bow and an arrow from my quiver as a red-tailed hawk spiraled down toward the road. Hawks were nearly as deadly as plants now, thanks to the faerie folk and their magic. I'd seen a hawk take down a dog bigger than Alex just last week. I nocked the arrow and let it fly.
My shot flew straight and clean, hitting the bird where wing met breast. It screamed and plummeted to the road. Alex screamed, too. I ran to where the bird had fallen. Its wing caught the sun and shone brightly against the asphalt.
Only -- there wasn't any sun today. Yet the light spread, tracing wing and beak and claw, turning the red-and-brown hawk to a shimmering gold one. I nocked another arrow.
Even as I did, the hawk changed. Feathers melted into skin; wings curled inward; talons twisted and stretched. The light faded, and all at once I saw not a hawk but a human boy not much older than me, a naked boy with his eyes squeezed shut as he lay curled around the arrow shaft that pierced his left shoulder. My face grew hot as I looked at him. He had fine white hair, and he moaned as his blood trickled to the ground, slowly enough that at least he wouldn't die right away.
I didn't lower my bow. I didn't know whether he was a boy who'd been caught by magic and turned into a hawk, or a hawk who'd been turned into a boy as some sort of faerie trap.
Alex crept up beside me, rubbing his shoulder, as if imagining what that arrow felt like. "He's hurt," my cousin whispered.
"Get Aunt Anna." My voice held steady, but my heart began to pound. If he was a hawk, we had to kill him. If he was a boy, we had to help him.
"Help," Alex echoed, as if reading the thought. He reached toward the boy, his small hand trembling.
"Get your Mom. Get her now." I'd have told Alex to get Uncle Doug, too, but he was up in the fields with the rest of the town. Only Alex and I were on weed patrol today.
My cousin's lip quivered, like he was about to cry, but then he took off running down the road, arms swinging, short legs pumping. He headed toward the clinic where Aunt Anna crushed willow bark -- tricky enough to harvest -- in hopes that it would bring fever down as well as aspirin. Aunt Anna had been a doctor before the war.
I watched to make sure Alex stayed on the road, keeping my bow aimed at the injured boy all the while. His eyes were closed, his breathing jagged, his skin pale. He didn't look like he could hurt anyone.
But hummingbirds didn't look like they could hurt anyone either, not until they pecked out your eyes. I got over thinking what things looked like mattered the first week of the war, when it seemed everything wanted kill us. I kept expecting the faerie folk themselves to show up back then, but I guess Summerhaven was too small to bother attacking in person. I'd never even seen them; our televisions died the first day of the war, and only the shortwave radio lasted a little longer. My nightmares filled in the details, though: I imagined monsters with grasping tree-branch limbs, their hair that a tangle of thorns and dead leaves.
Aunt Anna arrived with the stretcher -- really just canvas stretched over some old flagpoles. Alex ran ahead of her, carrying the faded backpack that held her field kit. He dropped the backpack when he saw us, though, and ran to the boy's side, grabbing his hand. The boy's face relaxed, just a little.
"Alex!" I cried. Their joined hands began to glow with some remnant of the hawk's light. I dropped my bow and snatched my cousin away. The light died; Alex struggled in my arms. He ought to know better than to touch any magic. He didn't even have his gloves on anymore.
If Aunt Anna had seen that light, she gave no sign. She calmly set the stretcher down, knelt by the boy's side and put her fingers to his neck, feeling for a pulse. Her brown hair was pulled back in a fraying red bandana, gray growing in at her temples, even though she was younger than Mom had been before the war.
The boy shivered. Tears leaked out the corners of his eyes. Aunt Anna stroked his hair. She didn't have gloves on, either. "It's all right, child. We won't hurt you."
"But he -- " I began.
" -- was a hawk," Aunt Anna finished, as if that were a small thing. "I know, Kyra. Help me get him onto the stretcher."
I put my own gloves on first. The boy didn't fight as we rolled him over. My face flushed hotter. He looked very much like a boy, lying on his back like that. The arrow jutted up from his shoulder, stabbing the sky.
It took more than a naked boy to embarrass my aunt, though. She took bandages from her kit and wrapped them firmly around his shoulder, arm, and chest to keep the arrow from moving around. We couldn't just pull it out -- it was a pre-war hunting arrow, designed to injure on entry and exit both. If we wanted the boy to live, we'd have to cut it free.
My aunt's hands were steady as always: the same hands that tilled fields, and skinned squirrels, and held me when I'd woken from nightmares, that first awful year after the war, woken crying that the trees had attacked my Mom, down in the city.
Aunt Anna never told me the dreams couldn't be true, though. She never said everything was all right, not like Mom would have, even though that was what I'd really wanted.
She tied the final bandage into a tight square knot. "Come on. Let's get him to the clinic."
I returned my bow to its quiver and stashed my gloves in my pockets. Aunt Anna and I hefted the stretcher and carried it down the road. Alex trudged along behind us with the field kit and the weed bag.
This road had been the main tourist strip through Summerhaven, back when the mountain town was a retreat for people down in Tucson who wanted to escape the desert heat. I should have been in Tucson with them when the war came, but Aunt Anna and Uncle Doug had invited me to their cabin for spring break. Why not? I'd thought. It'll be fun. They'd never invited me without my Mom before.
I never would have left Mom, though, if I'd known what was going to happen.
Cabins dotted the hillsides east and west of us as we walked. Stubs of burned trees poked up around the houses; beyond them terraced fields of beans, squash, and corn moaned as they reached for the sky. The crops were surrounded by protective rings of scorched earth, to keep them from marching down the hillside into town. Five years ago, if someone had told me plants could march, I'd have told them they'd been watching too many bad movies. Now I knew better; corn and beans could scratch you up something fierce if you weren't careful.
At least the crops probably wouldn't kill you, though. I glanced beyond the fields, to the tall pines that surrounded the town. Their needles pulsed with cold, green light, just like the special effects in bad movies. This light didn't end at the edge of some movie screen, though. It burned anyone stupid enough to touch it, melting skin and setting bone on fire.
A mile north of town, the road gave way to more trees. A mile south, it dipped into the Gulch, where the trees were joined by a few dozen species of deadly weeds. Once, my Mom drove more than a mile just to get me to school in the morning. Now my world stopped where the trees began.
The medical clinic was in the shop where tourists used to get cookies and ice cream on hot summer days. I left my bow by the front door. None of the four clinic beds -- two downstairs, two upstairs -- were filled now. We'd had a good summer, a good year. The sort of year that made people say we might survive on this mountain, after all.
Mom could have survived down in Tucson, too. She had to have survived. One day I'd find my way back to her.
Aunt Anna and I moved the boy into one of the downstairs beds, propping him up with pillows and draping a sheet over his legs and lower chest. His eyes were still shut, and his lips moved silently, as if he were praying. Without warning, he reached out and grabbed my hand.
I should have pulled away, but I didn't. His skin is so cold, I thought. I wondered whether he was going to die. I should have been used to seeing people die by now. I stared as the boy pressed his pale white fingers against my darker tanned ones.
Aunt Anna set Alex down in a chair near the door. "Stay here," she told him. "I'll need your help," she told me.
"I can help." Alex wriggled down out of the chair. Aunt Anna picked him up and set him firmly back into it. She headed into the back room, where I knew she'd poke banked coals into a fire to boil water.
Alex stuck out his lower lip. "I wanna go kill weeds. You let me help with the weeds."
Aunt Anna returned a few minutes later carrying a small bottle of Tylenol with codeine, a large bottle of town-made whisky, some fishing line, and a jar of crushed cayenne peppers. She set everything down on the table beside the bed and offered two Tylenol to the boy. "Can you swallow this?"
The boy pressed his fingers against my hand, and he opened his eyes.
Eyes that were specked with gold light. The hawk's light. I jerked my hand away. I'd seen juniper roots, shimmering with the same gold light, strangle a toddler when he fell.
Aunt Anna just calmly pressed the Tylenol into the boy's right hand, and I knew she meant to treat him, magic or no. She'd risked magic before: to extract poison oak that had rooted in a girl's ankle, to pry silver mesquite thorns out from beneath a woman's fingernails. We couldn't let magic stop us from being human, she said.
The boy brought the pills to his face, sniffing them suspiciously. His nose wrinkled, and he flung them away.
"Hey!" Medicine was precious now; we couldn't afford to waste it. I scrabbled on the floor to find the pills, and I returned them to the table. Alex watched me, fidgeting in his chair.
"Right," Aunt Anna said. "No analgesics, then." She offered the boy whisky instead. That he accepted. His gold eyes watched us as he drank.
Aunt Anna looked right into those eyes. "Cutting this arrow out is going to hurt something fierce. I'll try to be quick. But you need to stay still, understand?"
The boy didn't answer, but when Aunt Anna took the bottle, he sighed and lay back. She gave him a whisky soaked cloth to bite down on. Biting down helped with the pain, sometimes.
Especially without any codeine. Before the war, no one would have dreamed of cutting an arrow out with nothing but some homemade whisky. How long could we keep living like this?
"Kyra, you'll have to hold him down," Aunt Anna said.
I pulled on my gloves and placed my hands firmly on either side of the boy's chest. Aunt Anna carefully untied the bandages; they were dark with blood. More blood oozed around the wound. Aunt Anna returned to the back room to wash her hands. She returned with scalpels and needles she'd sterilized in the boiling water.
"You must be still," she told the boy again. Then she took a scalpel in her steady hands, and she sliced through the boy's pale skin.
He jerked beneath my grip, so hard my arms strained. But then, without warning, he sighed and went limp.
Was he dead already? No -- his chest moved slowly up and down. But his eyes had lost focus, and their gold sparks had dulled to embers. His mouth hung open. I pulled the cloth out before he could choke on it.
"Good boy." Aunt Anna moved the scalpel carefully around the arrow point, blood welling up in her incisions. There was something creepy -- something wrong -- about the way the boy hardly breathed. His open eyes didn't even move. I looked away, to where Alex sat beneath the chair now. He had his gloves off again, and he stared a large gray and white moth perched in his palm. The moth's left wings beat wildly at the air, but its right wings hung limp and torn. "I can help," Alex whispered, as if the moth might understand better than Aunt Anna and me.
"There." With a single sharp motion, Aunt Anna pulled the arrow free. Blood flowed from the wound. Skin and red flesh clung to the arrow's head. I took the arrow from my aunt, even as she poured cayenne pepper into the wound. Cayenne helped with clotting now. Lots of herbal remedies worked better than they used to, if only you could harvest them. Sometimes I wondered what Mom would think of that. She'd been a botanist before the war, though her specialty was invasive species, not herbs. She even consulted with the government about them sometimes, and with the Air Force base south of Tucson.
I cleaned the arrow in the back room while Aunt Anna used a needle and the fishing line to stitch the boy up. I returned as she drew the nylon thread through his skin one last time. He still didn't move, though having a needle pulled through your flesh hurt something fierce, too. Aunt Anna knotted and cut the line, wiped away the blood around the stitches, and bandaged his shoulder again.
The boy blinked, and his gaze clicked back into focus, right on Aunt Anna. Just like that.
"Thank you." His accent was strange and rough, a little like wind through cottonwood leaves.
"You're quite welcome." Aunt Anna brushed his white hair back from his face. The boy looked at me, the sparks in his eyes still dim. He sighed and shut those eyes. Within moments he slept.
The room grew very silent. The door creaked open. I got up to close it.
And froze, staring at an empty chair and a pair of leather gloves abandoned on the floor. "Alex." He must have gone while I was in the back room and Aunt Anna was intent on her stitches.
My aunt whirled around, glanced at the chair, and ran for the door. I followed her onto the porch. Alex was nowhere in sight, and he didn't come when we called.
My aunt pressed her lips together. "I'll find him, Kyra. You wait here and watch over our mystery boy."
"But -- "
Too late -- Aunt Anna was already down the stairs. She ran along the road, calling Alex's name. I walked slowly back to Alex's chair. A moth -- a different moth, its wings untorn -- flew off into a shadowed corner. I tried not to think about the toddler who'd fallen into the juniper roots. As long as Alex stayed away from the trees, he'd be fine. He had to be fine.
Just like Mom had to be fine. Just like the whole damn world had to be fine, but somehow wasn't.
I sighed and drew Alex's chair up beside the hawk boy's bed. His chest moved slowly up and down, and a few strands of white hair fell into his face. No, not quite white -- translucent, like strands of spun glass. I'd never seen anyone with hair like that before.
I hadn't seen anyone new at all the past five years, just the other sixty-three Summerhaven survivors and me. It was nice to look at someone different. With his eyes closed, the boy was even kind of cute. I reminded myself he was probably a hawk and definitely couldn't be trusted.
Did hawks thank you when you healed them? Did they speak human words at all?
I got up, took my quiver from beside the door, and set it in my lap. Just in case.
I don't know how long I sat there. The clouds broke up a little. The sun cast shadows through the room, bringing color to the boy's pale face and hairless chest. Morning slid into afternoon, and the shadows grew longer.
How far could Alex have gone? How long could it take Aunt Anna to find him? "They should be back by now."
The boy's eyes blinked open at my words. They were still gold, brighter now. My hands tightened around the quiver, but he just stared at me.
If not for him, Alex would never have had a chance to sneak off. "Who are you? You sure are a lot of trouble."
The boy squinted, as if trying to figure something out. "I am sorry," he said in that strange, rough voice.
You should be. I swallowed the words. "How do you feel?"
"Better. I believe you saved my life."
"I -- that arrow -- " Don't be an idiot. Did I really want him to know I was the one who'd shot him out of the sky?
"I might never have found my way back to my true form, if not for your arrow."
"Oh." How did anyone find their way out of their true form?
The boy sat up, sheet sliding to his legs. "I owe you an apology," he said.
"For assuming you were human. Clearly you are of a people who know kindness. Who know magic."
For just a moment, I didn't understand. Then I leapt to my feet, ignoring the chair as it toppled behind me, dropping the quiver to draw my knife. Everything clicked into place at once, like during the war, when we were trying to burn the trees back and couldn't afford to think slow.
"I am human. What are you?"
He staggered out of bed. The sheet slid to the floor, but I didn't dare look away. He drew his injured shoulder close to his side. "Truly, I mean you no harm." He trembled; maybe he feared me, too. Or maybe he was just too weak to be out of the bed. "I thought you must be one of the folk," he said. "Like me. I thought some of my people must have survived this terrible war after all."
The faerie folk. The ones who'd destroyed our world. All this time I'd worried whether he was a hawk or a boy, when really he was something far worse. My nightmares had gotten it wrong, when they told me the faerie folk had gnarled tree-branch arms and tangled dead-leaf hair. Instead they looked almost like us.
"Are your people waiting out there?" My voice squeaked; I fought to steady it. If more faerie folk waited among the trees, we didn't stand a chance.
The boy winced and pressed his hand to his bandaged shoulder. "My people are gone. If you are human, you know that, for your people killed them."
"Only because you attacked us!" Attacked without warning, halfway through spring break, waking the trees and the weeds and even the stupid potted houseplants with their magic, commanding all those plants to destroy us. Oh, there'd been rumors of a possible attack before, but they'd been the usual things: closed-door government meetings, talk of bioterrorism, an alert saying to exercise caution when traveling, especially in wooded areas. No one even knew the faerie folk really existed outside of old stories. No one but the military and the president and whoever else was in those meetings.
"The humans attacked." The boy looked right at me, his gaze sharp as acacia thorns, as if the whole damn war were my fault. "You attacked our forests with your airplanes and your fire. My elder sister sat on the Council. She met with the seers and heard their warnings. She knew what your people would do. So she changed me into a hawk and told me to fly away. I obeyed her command, though I should have stayed to fight by her side. I will bear the shame of that decision all my days. Time means little to a hawk, but I fear I flew a long time. Long enough for my sister to die in the fires the humans sent."
"How can you say we sent them?" My fingers tightened around my knife hilt. "Were you there? Did you see? You said you flew away!"
His gold eyes stared at me, burning bright, and I wondered if he could set things on fire just by looking at them. But then he bowed his head. "You speak truth. I did not see that attack. Did you see my people set this war in motion?"
Of course they set it in motion. I didn't look down -- unlike this faerie boy, I had nothing to apologize for. "No, I didn't see anything." How could I have, when his people destroyed every single way we had of seeing beyond our own small town?
"So there is no way to know how it happened."
For five years I'd known! Maybe he was lying. Maybe he knew perfectly well how the war had started, but wanted me to trust him. I had a sudden, awful thought. "Is it your fault Alex is missing? Did your people lure him away?" Faeries lured people away all the time in those old stories.
The boy looked sharply up. "Alex? The child with magic?"
"Alex doesn't have magic." He's human, like me. "Did your people take him?" If they had -- I would kill this boy. Kill him even as his gaze burned me to dust.
"My people are gone. But if Alex is missing, we must find him."
"Aunt Anna's looking for him." If she'd been gone too long, if I was worried about her and Alex both -- that was none of his concern.
The boy hunched over. "When Alex touched me, I felt his magic, even through my own pain. I feel it still. I can find him. I will find him. I won't abandon untrained magic, no matter who wields it." He straightened and stumbled toward the door.
"What? Do you not wish to find Alex?" he demanded.
"Of course I do." I sheathed my knife. I wanted it so badly that I knew I'd follow him, even though for all I knew he'd lead me right into some faerie trap. "Only -- you have to put clothes on first. There are thorns out there."
"I am not troubled by thorns." Still, he waited as I hurried upstairs to rifle through the closets.
He sniffed the faded jeans I offered him, as if denim smelled as bad as Tylenol, but he pulled them on, careful of his injured shoulder. He refused the plastic-soled sneakers, though. I brought a T-shirt, too, but feared I'd jostle his arm pulling it over his head. I turned the shirt into a sling instead.
He was breathing hard by the time we were through. Aunt Anna wouldn't have let him out of the clinic at all. "Can you walk?" I asked.
He hunched over again, and his breathing steadied. "I can walk. There is pain, but pain can be put aside for a time, though I'll feel it later, and it will be worse for the delay."
You couldn't just put off pain the way you put off dinner or feeding the goats -- but I remembered the radio reports saying that faerie folk were harder to kill than humans, and also that they healed much faster.
I slung my quiver over my back and led the faerie boy out the door. His bare feet moved lightly over the asphalt, making no sound. His breath was steady now.
"Do you have a name?" I asked.
He said something a bit like a name and a bit like wind through pine needles. It sounded like Camden, but only a little.
"I know." The boy -- Camden -- kept walking, past the last houses and toward the Gulch.
Alex knew better than to go into the Gulch. Was this a trick after all?
I wanna go kill weeds. A chill trickled down my spine, in spite of the sticky air. There were lots of weeds to kill in the Gulch, and lots of things that could kill in turn -- like the thorny mesquites and acacias that climbed up from the lower slopes, and that I helped to burn back every fall. No one entered the Gulch alone.
Pavement gave way to gray dirt. Camden sniffed the air, as if he could still smell the fires that had scorched the dirt here five years before. Not all the trees had burned in the war, though. There'd been ordinary forest fires in Summerhaven before then, too.
The dirt road narrowed into a rocky canyon, and a few weeds appeared along its edges: ferny green bracken, swaying restlessly though there was no wind; yellow columbines bent close together, whispering secrets; spikes of fireweed, their pink buds still closed, ready to throw sparks into the air when they bloomed.
The weeds thickened ahead of us, and writhing pine roots poked through the canyon walls. Atop those walls, the pine trees reached toward each other, forming a baleful canopy of cold glowing needles. Further on, the weeds and trees overflowed into the road, so thick our axes and fires couldn't penetrate them.
Camden halted and cocked his head. His right hand clenched into a fist against his jeans. "These trees are angry. What did your people do to anger them so?"
"My people? Those trees killed my people." More than a third of Summerhaven had died, during the war or during the first hard winter after it.
"My people would not command trees to kill." Camden sounded very sure.
"Yeah, well, my people wouldn't send airplanes to burn forests, either." I stalked past him, deeper into the Gulch, deadly pines glowing above me. Camden followed, his steps still silent. His breath came out in soft puffs, as if he were beginning to tire.
In the distance, I heard faint moaning: human or plant, I couldn't tell. I rounded a bend -- and stopped so fast the breath rushed out of me. Camden halted beside me and followed my horrified gaze.
Something had climbed the mountain all right, all the way up from the desert floor. Not an acacia or a mesquite, though. A saguaro.
It blocked the road just a few dozen yards on, a giant green saguaro cactus with long branched arms. Alex stood at the saguaro's base, staring up to where --
"Alex," I whispered, my throat going dry. "Alex, come here."
Alex whimpered, but he didn't turn around. He stretched his arms upwards, toward where that saguaro held Aunt Anna in its thorny embrace.
Bile rose at the back of my throat. The saguaro had grabbed my aunt right up off the ground. One of its thorny arms was folded over her chest, pressing her into its trunk. She hung limp there, bright silver cactus spines digging into her skin. Blood was everywhere: on her torn T-shirt, on her arms, on the hair that had come loose and fell, like a curtain, to her knees.
I stood there, stomach churning, helpless as during the first days of the war, when I couldn't believe plants could really move, really attack, really kill.
Was she already dead? Would it be any better if she were still alive, still bleeding, all those thorns digging into her skin --
I nearly choked on the sour taste in my mouth. I couldn't be sick, not now. I couldn't lose control while Alex still stood so close to the deadly spines.
"Alex, honey, come to Kyra."
The saguaro moaned softly. Its accordion pleats pulsed in and out. Alex's small body trembled. "I can help," he said, the same words he'd whispered to the injured moth in his palm.
I wanted to run forward and grab him, but what if the saguaro moved faster? What if another arm snapped down, grabbed Alex --
"Alex, please." I looked helplessly at Camden.
Gold burned in his eyes. "That tree is very angry," he said.
"Make it stop." My voice shook; I fought not to scream. "Your people woke the plants. Make it stop."
"My people did not -- " Camden drew a sharp breath. "I do not know who did this."
"But can you stop it?" If the faerie folk could command trees to attack, couldn't they also command them to stop attacking? My gaze flickered back to Alex; he still didn't move.
"I can speak with all living things." Camden didn't move, either.
"Then what are you waiting for? Talk to the saguaro!"
"I do not know that it will listen," Camden said. "There is a risk. I may only anger it more."
"So risk it!" My throat tightened around the words, choking off the sobs that threatened right behind them.
"You are remarkably willing to sacrifice my life." Camden held his injured arm close in its sling. "Perhaps your arrow was not meant to save me? Perhaps you wish to finish the work your people began?"
Aunt Anna was the one who'd pulled that arrow out. She'd never doubted we should save him; only I had done that. But even I knew that no one deserved to die in a saguaro's deadly grasp. Yet Camden just stood there, trembling like a sunflower on an overcast day.
Could faerie folk be scared like humans could? Scared of fire, scared of magic, scared of dying?
I was scared, too. I'd been scared for five years. But that didn't mean I was about to leave my cousin there.
"Alex, honey." I walked forward. My legs trembled, but I kept going. I didn't dare shoot my arrows. The saguaro was too big; one arrow wouldn't be enough, and I doubted I'd get a chance to shoot another. I drew my knife instead. If the saguaro attacked, maybe I could at least buy Alex enough time to get away.
The moaning turned to a wail. The ground quivered, and thin silver roots poked through the soil.
"Kyra!" Camden said.
I sheathed that knife, as fast as I could, though I had no idea how the saguaro knew I'd drawn it. The roots retreated and the wailing subsided.
"Kyra, it is too dangerous. You must come back."
I ignored Camden and knelt in front of my cousin, putting myself between him and the saguaro. His gray eyes left Aunt Anna and focused on me. He threw his arms around my neck and burst into sobs.
"Come on, Alex. Let's go home." Without Aunt Anna -- but I couldn't think about that yet. Still holding Alex, I started to stand, only to feel something pull Alex back. "Stuck," Alex whimpered. I looked down and saw saguaro roots woven through his tattered laces, tying him to the ground.
"It's all right." I sounded calmer than I felt. "We just have to get your feet out of those sneakers, okay?"
"Okay," Alex said, though he didn't sound so sure.
My gloves were too thick. I pulled them off and slid my finger behind the tongue of Alex's first shoe, gently nudging it back. The ground trembled beneath us, then fell still. I pushed Alex's sock down and pulled his foot free. The roots wriggled through the abandoned sock and into the empty space of the shoe, as if that were all they'd wanted all along.
I got Alex's second foot free, too, my heart pounding all the while. I took him in my arms. "Good boy," I said.
Alex drew a shuddering breath. I thought he'd start crying, but instead he squirmed out of my arms and reached into his left shoe.
"Never forget the roots," he said, and he pulled.
The saguaro screamed. The earth churned, throwing me face-first to the ground. Roots swarmed up Alex's arms, pulling him down, too.
"Bad weeds!" he cried. I tried to get up, but more saguaro roots grabbed my wrists and ankles. All around us, silver roots wriggled and writhed. Above, something creaked. One of the saguaro's arms, bending toward us. Roots tangled through my hair, pulling my face into the dirt.
I fought those roots for all I was worth, knowing any moment thorns would pierce my skin, that the saguaro would get me and Alex both. I heard a roaring in my ears, like wind through pine needles.
All at once the roots released me. Just like that. I looked up, even as Alex crawled to my side and the wriggling roots sank back into the soil.
Camden stood in front of us, his arm out of its sling, his hands pressed against the saguaro's green skin. He spoke to the cactus, more quietly now, but not any words I knew. His voice really did sound like wind through pines. The saguaro's pulsing slowed, then stopped. The saguaro's silver spines faded to gray.
Camden drew his hands away and turned to face us. His palms bled, but he didn't seem to notice. "Lost. So lost, Kyra. It wants to go home, but it cannot find the way." He sounded so sad, I didn't know whether he'd found his courage for our sake or the saguaro's. Not until he added, more softly, "You are only human, yet you risked so much to save Alex. How could I do less?"
Behind Camden, the saguaro unfolded its arms and gave one final shudder. Aunt Anna fell to the ground, bones snapping as she landed. Alex cried out; we both ran to her side.
She lay on her back, chest and arms and mouth all bleeding, knees bent at unnatural angles. Alex threw himself at her, wailing louder than any saguaro.
I wanted to join him, but I had no idea how long the saguaro would stay quiet. I still had to get Alex out of here. I tried to tug him away, but he grabbed Aunt Anna's shoulders and wouldn't let go.
"Mama. I can help." He bit his lip, so hard it bled. And then --
Then gold light bloomed beneath his hands, turning to squirming tendrils that forced their way between his fingers and swarmed like pine roots over Aunt Anna's body.
"Alex!" I tried to pull him away, but like a stubborn weed he hung on. He laughed, as if being attacked by magic were the best thing that had ever happened to him.
I pulled harder. I'd lost Aunt Anna, but I wouldn't let magic take Alex.
Someone pulled me back, so hard and fast I toppled over, quiver digging into my back as I fell.
"Why do you stop him?" Camden glared down at me, his eyes burning brighter than I'd yet seen. I tried to get up, but he shoved me back down, leaving bloody handprints on my T-shirt. "Why do you not let Alex save those he can in turn?"
"The magic will kill him." I fought, but Camden held on, surprisingly strong. Blood seeped through his bandages. "Magic always kills -- you of all people should know that!"
"You truly believe that?" Camden's voice was soft, pained. "Magic is not like an arrow. It doesn't always wound. Trust Alex to save his mother, Kyra."
How could Alex possibly save her? But I stopped struggling. Camden let me go, and I stumbled to my feet.
Aunt Anna was covered with wriggles of gold light. They burrowed down into her skin like angry tree roots, fading as they did. Alex laughed louder. Did my aunt's eyes flutter, just for a moment? They couldn't have. With a final bright flash, the light disappeared. Alex stood up, grinning.
Aunt Anna groaned and slowly opened her eyes.
"That's impossible," I whispered, even though I'd learned to believe in impossible things since the war. Aunt Anna drew her hands to her face and stared at skin crisscrossed with white scars. Old scars. The blood was gone.
She sat up slowly, as if she expected pain. Alex crawled into her lap and leaned his head against her shoulder. He smiled, closed his eyes, and whispered, "Told you, Kyra. Told you I could help."
Aunt Anna's arms tightened around him. Tears streamed down her face.
"Alex is a gifted healer," Camden said.
Alex was human. How could he possibly have magic?
I didn't care how. I fell to my knees and hugged my cousin and aunt, even as I started crying, too. Aunt Anna stroked my hair. "Good girl," she whispered. I wondered if she really knew what had just happened, or if I'd have to explain it all later.
"The saguaro has agreed to sleep," Camden said. "It will not trouble us again for some time." He gazed toward the glowing pines and the sky. His eyes took on a distant look. "Elder Sister is gone. I cannot change back. I cannot go home."
Would any of us ever get home? I drew my arms around myself. "Mom," I whispered.
Aunt Anna reached for my hands; I helped her to her feet. "Your mother would be glad you're here, Kyra. She'd be glad you're safe."
"No one knows what Mom would have wanted." No one saw the war coming.
My aunt smiled again, more sadly this time, and all of a sudden I knew. Knew what I should have realized five years ago.
"Most botanists don't consult with the government, do they?" When Mom said she specialized in invasive species, she didn't mean dandelions and Bermuda grass. She was part of those secret meetings. She saw the war coming.
Aunt Anna nodded; she never denied what was true. "Your Mom thought you'd be safer in Summerhaven. The forest fires had already burned so much away. She thought you'd have a chance here."
Had Mom advised the government officials to the burn the faerie trees? Or had she only told them how to defend themselves when our own trees woke and attacked?
I looked at Camden, wondering whose people had started this war, wondering why it seemed so important to know. I thought of how Camden's sister had turned him to a hawk and sent him away, just as Mom had sent me away.
I looked at Alex, who was human, but who somehow had magic anyway. What would I do to keep Alex safe? Turn him into a hawk? Send him away whether he wanted to go or not? All that and more. Except now Alex could save people, too.
"Do we all have magic?" I asked Camden, not sure whether I wanted magic or not.
Camden shook his head. "You are too old. If you had magic you'd know by now."
Did Alex have magic because he was born after the war -- after faerie magic was set loose in the world? Did the other children born after have magic, too?
Camden still stared at the sky. I didn't have my gloves -- they'd disappeared among the saguaro roots -- but I reached for his good hand. His palm felt cold against mine. Camden looked down at our linked fingers, tan and white, human and faerie. He shut his eyes, as if his shoulder hurt very much. "What would Elder Sister say?"
Probably the same thing Mom would. "She'd say she's glad you're safe." She'd say that if these few miles were all we had, we'd better hang onto them for all we were worth. Or maybe it was me thinking that. Just like it was me thinking maybe who started the war mattered less than staying alive now that it had happened.
It would be a little easier now. Alex could heal people after the trees attacked. Camden could try to stop those trees from attacking in the first place. The rest of us -- well, the rest of us would have to keep fighting and surviving whatever way we could.
Maybe we'd have to use whisky and willow bark instead of Tylenol and aspirin. Maybe I'd have to eat squirrel and goat for the rest of my life. But we'll keep on surviving, I silently promised Mom, and Camden's sister, and myself.Aunt Anna and Camden both walked slowly, but they could walk. Alex's shoes were gone with my gloves; I let him ride my back. We left the saguaro to its sleep and headed out of the Gulch, toward the few miles of forest we held as our own.
- END -