The train car reeked of cigarettes and rumbled like a storm. Loud enough to drown out the voice of every passenger crammed inside it, but still Inez’s heartbeat rattled between her ears. It had started when she stuffed her backpack with clothes in the dark, and only boomed louder as she’d slipped out past her mother’s wheezy, sleeping form on the couch, thirty-six or so hours earlier.
It had followed her through the cracked streets, then onto the bus, and all five trains after that. Or was it six, now? She hadn’t slept a wink since the drumming started. She’d begun to think nothing would ever be quiet again.
The bruise on her cheek had faded enough now to be mistaken for a shadow on dusky skin, though it throbbed faintly in time with her pulse. No one had even spared her a passing glance when she boarded the train.
Inez had wedged herself into a far, windowless crevice of a seat, clutched her backpack hard against her chest, and waited for the dread to loosen its grip.
No luck yet. So onward it was.
Once her current train clanked into the station, she shuffled onto the platform and took a deep breath, only to taste even more bitterness in it. She reached into her pocket and drew out less than a dollar in change.
Strangers shoved past her and onto their trains. The longer she stood staring at those coins, the louder the dread rumbled in her skull. She needed to keep moving.
She drifted across the sprawl of washed-out tile, out of the paths of others who searched the flickering TV screens beseechingly. Everyone she passed was going in the opposite direction from her.
Inez stepped out into the stale summer air and walked. She walked until the afternoon bled into dusk and the day wasted away under the heels of her second-hand sneakers. She wove through gray streets flanked by gray buildings wearing more gray smoke like scarves. The hollow chill thickened in her gut with each step against the hard sidewalk, but she slogged on.
There had to be something. Something, not anything. No shelters—she wasn’t a stray. A church could work. Hell, she’d take a bench at this point. Anything would do, so long as it wasn’t that house.
Unlike her mother, Inez knew when to quit. When to give a place over to the vermin wasting it. The situation turned out to be comically simple, really. In the end, it all boiled down to a choice. Get out, or get wiped out.
Inez kept walking. Her stomach kept roaring, and her heart drummed on and on and on.
Then, the trees.
So many trees, all soft edges and swaying and green. An ocean of trees stretched to the sky and down the block and farther, farther than bleary eyes could measure. The first real trees she’d seen in days, wearing a collar of what was probably the sorriest excuse for a fence in the entire world. Inez jogged across the street and approached a large, slightly crooked sign.
TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED.
The words were printed in bold black type and hung against a background that at some point must have been white.
PARK HOURS: 7AM-7PM.
The last dregs of sunset fell yellow and molten over the skin of her neck and the heavy padlock on the gate. Inez glanced over her shoulder to the city. Just looking at it made her itch to take a puff of her inhaler she knew she couldn’t spare. No telling when she’d be able to refill her prescription again.
Despite the heat, Inez shivered, and a whisper from somewhere deep and dark in her chest asked, What were you thinking?
Behind her, the street was miraculously clear of cars. For one floating, dream-still moment, the only things breathing were her and those trees. Rustling, watching. Waiting to see what she would do.
She ignored the voice and climbed the fence.
Her feet hit the earth with a soft thud. She tore off her shoes and stuffed them into her backpack, sighing as grass eased the concrete’s ache from her soles. Another sign accosted her a few strides in, this one so eroded it seemed ancient, hanging around the trunk of a tree like an amulet: a thirty-one point list of the park’s prohibited activities. Vines and moss skirted its edges, entwined in the gaps of the chain that held it aloft.
No smoking, no hunting, no trapping, no littering, no fishing in the pond, no carving the trees, no, no, no. They would have saved a lot of paint if they’d just written KEEP YOUR DAMN HANDS TO YOURSELF. Inez wondered if there were security cameras in the park, but that would involve breaking about four of their own rules.
She ambled on until the fence disappeared from view. There weren’t even any real footpaths, just vague stretches of faded grass, mostly concealed by the shells of parched leaves. No digging. No vehicles. Sounds of the city beyond waned with every step until they were barely memories. The dulcet crooning of unseen birds replaced the din of construction, of razing machinery. No sign of the skyscrapers, no sign of a single gray thing.
Huckleberries dotted the dark brush. Inez plucked them up in clusters as she walked, barely chewing, her relief turning even the most unripe clumps nectarous and intoxicating.
The path curved, and around the bend stood an enormous weeping willow. Under it: a bench. For the first time in weeks, maybe months, Inez laughed.
She sat down, shucked off her backpack, and took deep, even breaths. The air tasted sweeter than the berries.
But her clothes still smelled of her mother’s cigarettes. So did the backpack, and the short dark coils of her hair. Now, though, in this park, the bitter smell seemed to have dissipated a little. Like the fresh air was washing her clean from the inside out.
Dusk elapsed in minutes; night draped the trees in obsidian. With the dark and stillness and her newly full stomach came syrupy fatigue. It colored everything—even the dingy bench was transformed into the softest and warmest bed she had known in years. For a long time, the only thing she did was breathe, letting herself sink further into the summer air, and it into her.
With every inhale, she imagined it purifying the black secondhand-smoke stains in her lungs, then sneaking into her veins and her brain, erasing every ugly thing that lived there, every memory molding in every dark corner and inside every wall.
Yes, she was alone in a city she didn’t know the name of, broke and bedding down on a park bench. And there was a stubborn weight in her chest that she couldn’t ignore, and bruises still clinging to her skin. But there were wild berries too, and trees tall enough to blot out the sky, and she didn’t have to think of her mother ever again. For now, that would have to be enough.
The willow leaves rustled loudly above her, though the air was still. Inez couldn’t bring herself to open her eyes again once they fell closed. So she just listened, and after a while, the rustling ceased.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept in air this clean, or the last time she’d lain in the night without listening to her mother slinking in the door with her latest fix. It was a different world entirely, a world made only of crisp, bright things. Balmy green things her mother’s smoke could never spoil.
Inez slept like the dead, and dreamt of nothing at all. Until a sharp rattling cut through the gloom and jolted her awake into a dry early dawn.
For a moment the world reeled and her head spun, full of dizzy white flickers. She was stuck between spinning and floating, half numb still from the previous day’s exhaustion. The rattling continued, and Inez jerked up from the bench when she recognized it as the sound of the metal fence.
The sun had just barely begun to light the park, like the first translucent strokes of an underpainting. What could it be, six in the morning? No way anyone was opening that gate right now.
But she hadn’t needed to open the gate to get in.
The heavy crunch of footsteps sounded from nearby.
“Shit!” Inez hissed, and in a frantic blur, snatched up her backpack and dove for cover behind the thick trunk of the willow tree.
The footsteps lurched slowly nearer, down the same path she’d taken to the bench, and on. When they passed the tree, Inez held her breath, and leaned just slightly out into the open to regard her fellow trespasser.
Square shoulders, baggy jeans, dusty combat boots. The man plodding past couldn’t have been much older than her, judging by his height and clothes. He stomped listlessly through the grass, clutching an aluminum can. Drunk.
He stopped walking a few feet past the bench. A lit cigarette teetered between the fingers of his free hand. He took a swig from the can, then a puff from the cigarette. The cloud of gray smoke he breathed into the air caused a queasy flutter in Inez’s chest. Moments later, the scent hit her, and despite how hard she tried to fight it off, she couldn’t breathe.
She hadn’t smelled such strong cigarettes since her mother last lit one. That night could have been a lifetime ago, for how far away it felt. Ever since she was a little girl, any fresh whiff of that bitter smoke, and she was gasping, looking for fire, looking for ruin. She’d woken from nightmares of her mother turned to nothing but a heap of char on that ratty couch too many times to count.
When she was fourteen, the doctor had diagnosed her with asthma and recommended nicotine gum to her mother. And every night since for three whole years, Inez had slept with her window open and door shut.
Just when she thought she’d found the one place on earth where that smell couldn’t follow her.
The man took another drag, his head lolling back with the inhale. Then he flicked the cigarette away, and it fell to the earth. The ashy end of it sputtered against the brittle foliage. Inez knew what came next, but when the orange flickers caught and burst outwards, she gasped as if she were the one burned.
The stranger whirled about. His glazed-over eyes met hers. Inez trembled and flinched, dropping back from her haunches into the dirt. Smoke drifted up from the ground in a thin curl.
A splitting thrum cut through the air. It sent a stabbing pain through the base of her skull, so loud it could have been coming from inside the bone. Like the whole forest had just trembled with her.
The willow tree above her shook violently again, without even a whisper of a breeze. The drunk man was not looking at her anymore, but up at the tree.
She followed his gaze to the branches. They weren’t where she remembered them being.
The boughs bent to the ground, splayed apart wide like fingers. Inez took a breath that froze in her throat. Then the trunk of the willow tree uprooted from the earth.
It was much quieter than she would have ever guessed—to hear a tree tear itself out of the ground. For a moment, there was only a hum. Then a sharp crackle rippled through the stillness, and the trunk split in two. The halves met the ground, looking like the lean brown legs of a Titan. On either side of the tree, the remaining branches twisted into coils. Green vines dangled in a tight, roundish cluster at the willow’s crest: a faceless head glistening with dew.
Inez had barely heaved in a new breath when the tree-thing angled its colossal semblance of a body toward the drunk man. At his feet, the cigarette still sputtered, glowing like a shrunken sun but giving no life. It would drain the green from anything it touched.
A yowl, like the groaning of a twig right before it snaps, sounded from the bundle of leaves atop the tree. It stuck in Inez’s ears, in her teeth, in her ribs. It clashed with the piercing blare that the lit cigarette had conjured and for all she knew they were the same thing. Maybe that was what everything sounded like when you were going to die.
Inez’s body moved separate from her mind. She crawled toward the cigarette on her hands and knees, and the willow moved too, overtaking her in one heaving stride. The drunk man had already started to run.
The whole world was rattling and that cigarette was still burning in the grass, like her mother, poisoning everything, and she couldn’t breathe. She had to make it stop. In her peripheral vision the tree creature continued to move, its gnarled limbs cleaving through the air.
Inez mirrored it, throwing out her arm and smothering the cigarette against her hand. Ahead of her the creature halted, one of its branches seizing up mid-swing. The man disappeared into the brush and out of sight. When the metal fence jangled sharply in the distance not long after, the creature lowered its arm.
Inez’s vision blurred. Panic pounded in her skull, almost loud enough to drown out the giant’s gait as it turned back and thumped toward her.
Her chest burned with emptiness. She fumbled in her pocket for her inhaler. Blackness choked every thought in her head except the ones steering her hands.
Nothing left to exhale. Click. Hiss. Breathe in—hold—breathe out.
It took three puffs for the vise around her lungs to loosen. The world came slowly back into focus with every heave, centering on an ugly red burn glaring up from the center of her palm.
A tall shadow crashed over her. Inez looked up, breath thin again.
The creature had no eyes to meet but its stare still pierced. It stood rigid, a monument of bristled greenery. Tears welled up in Inez’s eyes. Either from fear or pain, she wasn’t sure. It didn’t really matter, because she was going to die any second now. The creature craned its verdant body downward as if in confirmation.
Inez snapped her head down, closed her eyes, and waited to be crushed. Waited like she had those nights ago, back pressed to her bedroom door as it rattled with the force of her mother’s fists, the air bloated with cigarette smoke and a voice screaming out for her blood.
She’d thought her mother was still sleeping off her latest bender when she flushed the pills. But her hands just wouldn’t stop shaking, and everything had clattered to the floor, and she’d only gotten a few handfuls down the pipes when fingers had twisted into her hair and wrenched her back. A hand had crashed against her cheekbone, knocking her into the wall. Her ears rang and her mother had slipped on the tile, so Inez ran. She’d locked herself in her room and wept until long after her mother had given up on threatening to strangle her.
She’d made her decision before the latch even clicked. The next time she ran would be the last.
Curled in on herself in the dirt, Inez let the tears fall. Choked whimpers leaked through her teeth, clenched tight against the smoke. It could have been her mother there, all smoldering ash. Geared to snuff her out like an ember into a cracked tray.
Inez waited to die.
And waited. And waited.
Something soft brushed down her cheek. She gasped and the aroma of damp foliage flooded her mouth.
Rustling surrounded her. A faint creaking joined it, lurking just beneath the steady hum of leaves. Alike in timbre to what had sounded in the chaos, but with none of the venom—the same voice, a different tone. She blinked the tears out of her eyes. The green mop of vines hung just a few inches from her face, the rest of the creature bent in an awkward, jointless attempt at kneeling.
It didn’t crush her. Instead, it raised one of the branches from its side and took her gingerly by the wrist of her burned hand. The long sprigs of leaves drew open her fist. This time, the noise that rose from the creature’s unseen mouth was nearly a chirp, the pitch of it leaping, like a question. Shrill with curiosity, maybe even concern.
Before she could dwell on how pathetic that thought was, the giant punctuated its remark with a tilt of its massive leafy head, and sparks stirred in Inez’s skull.
It was talking to her.
She searched for any hint of eyes behind those vines. “I . . . um, I don’t understand,” she muttered, unsteady with the new weight of this wonder. But it was true: she was still alive, and a beast dressed in forestry had really just materialized because someone burned the grass.
She looked to the gray smudge between the two of them, where the extinguished cigarette lay, then at her palm, cradled by the willow’s wispy fingers. “It burned you too.”
The vines around her hand drew upwards a fraction, and a thin stream of clear water trickled out from a fissure in the branch and washed over her ash-dotted palm. She flinched and hissed at the sting.
The willow made a cooing noise that sounded an awful lot like the calming hums other people’s mothers made to their fussy children. Had it learned that from observation? Or did nature have its own language of tenderness?
“Thank you,” Inez said, brushing her fingers over the bark.
Again that rustling echoed around them, and the giant let her go. It rose with a chorus of creaks and trod heavily back toward the patch of ragged earth behind the bench.
Sunlight broke through the canopy and gilded the grass so fiercely Inez had to squint. Soundlessly, the earth began to knit itself back together once the rooted feet of the willow settled into the hollow they’d created. Time seemed to move in reverse as its limbs unwound and stretched to their original shape. By the time she blinked the brightness away, the bench and willow tree stood perfectly undisturbed, the burn in her palm the only indicator that any of it had ever happened.
Inez pushed herself up on two wobbly legs and teetered over to the tree, a small grin fighting its way across her face. She hitched her toppled backpack onto her shoulder; it weighed practically nothing now. One errant breeze and she might just float away like a petal, sheer and light enough to never touch the ground again.
That didn’t sound so bad.
When she was just a little girl, ‘never’ had been the scariest word in the world. A cage that would suffocate her if she got too close. But now, ‘never’ was more secure than anywhere. Not a cage, but armor. She could lie down inside it and it would keep her safe.
Never was a survivor’s word.
She’d whispered it in the din of every train, to the dread each time it returned and choked the breath from her chest—never, never, never. She was never going back.
And the dread was quieter now, like she’d finally gone far enough.
Inez rubbed her fingertips gratefully over the knobs and valleys in the willow’s bark.
Someone would be opening that gate soon. If she were careful, she could get out before anyone knew she’d entered at all. She would be anonymous again.
Anonymous, but not free. Not free of the dread, or the smoke, or the exhaustion of searching for hope in a colorless city.
At least this place had rules. Rules meant care, and she’d seen precious little of that for a long, long time.
Inez pressed her ear to the willow. She didn’t know what she expected to hear, but when it was silent, she couldn’t stop her heart from sinking.
“Hello?” she mumbled, and rapped against the wood lightly with her knuckles. “Are you still there? I, um, didn’t realize this park was already occupied.” Her chuckle came out crumpled like the leaves dappling the undergrowth. No reaction. Maybe it was sleeping. Maybe it just wanted her to shut up and leave it alone. Or maybe it didn’t care about her at all, so long as she didn’t break any of the rules.
Leaving it be seemed like the safest bet. She didn’t want to test the limits of its hospitality, not after what she’d just witnessed.
Feeling childish and yet vaguely like she was being watched, Inez started off in a new direction, away from the pseudo-footpath she’d first followed and into the brush. The noisy layers of expired leaves crackled like tinder with each stride.
By late morning, the air swelled with heat. She downed one of the water bottles she’d had the good sense to buy during her train-hopping, and had half-stuffed the empty plastic shell into her backpack when the sound of real running water hit her, muffled a little by distance. She followed it until her bare feet pushed through a hedge and slipped into blessedly cool mud.
A thin stream wound through the clearing. On its bank, hundreds of yellow flowers gleamed from spray cast off the rocks. Inez propped her backpack up against a tree, sat down on the edge of the brook and dipped her legs into the cool, glossy water. She splashed a handful over her face and scrubbed the scum of the last few days away.
Sighing, she shut her eyes and lay back against the bed of flowers. Her fingers carded through their velvety leaves, tight and tangled like her own curls. Her head went woozy with the blossoms’ sweet scent.
She listened for any sounds of the city, knowing it lurked on all sides of the park. Still nothing. If the skyscrapers were teeth, then this forest sat in the middle of a wide-open jaw, surrounded on all sides but never devoured.
Something was different here—she’d noticed it before, but not realized how deep the sensation ran. It wasn’t just the air, or the trees, or the ground. It was everything.
Her thoughts drifted again to that list of rules. It hung in her mind in the same looming way it hung on its tree, fixed in place even by the foliage. Different from everything else, but not unwelcome.
Inez opened her eyes, and swallowed a yelp. A figure hovered over her, though that was all she could really call it. Its vaguely human-shaped body was comprised entirely of clustered leaves and budded flowers. It seemed to watch her, though the closest thing to eyes it possessed were two blossoms just slightly larger than the rest, fixed at the middle of its lumpy crown.
She sat up and turned around to face the thing. Its maybe-head followed her. It looked like some kind of artsy hedge trimming from a magazine. Like someone had tried to haphazardly sculpt a person out of foliage, someone who didn’t know for sure, or didn’t care to know, exactly what people looked like.
“Oh, there are more of you,” Inez blurted, heart still racing. Rustling filled her head. She held up her burnt hand and gave a short wave.
The leaves on the creature shook slightly, back and forth.
Inez worked her bottom lip between her teeth. “No? You’re . . . just one?” She gestured over her shoulder back toward the general direction of the willow.
Another hum, then all the flower buds on the creature’s body bloomed into striking tiny suns. The blossoms skirting the stream repeated the display, petals flaring out in a long wave. Warmth so far from the summer’s unflinching aridity saturated the air; she breathed in and felt it in her chest, searching for soil to take root in.
Inez smiled, and caressed the leaves below her again. The little red dot glared up from her palm beneath the vegetation, a reminder of the damage already done, how they’d both been burned. A handful of soft gestures wouldn’t erase that.
But it was better than nothing. Or so she hoped.
Inez watched the creature watching her, and wondered if it felt her touch like it had felt the cigarette. Maybe it felt everything the forest did, every inch of every acre. Like veins, connecting each life to the next, tying blade of grass to sprawling tree to sunning flower, each to each to each. A system, and its heart. What a thing to share a wound with.
“Those rules back there are yours, aren’t they? They were written for you,” she said.
Thirty-one rules was nothing compared to all the ways a thing could be hurt. All the ways a life could be snuffed out. No death too small to grieve. Like it ignored no offense, no wrong. Carrying a memory as old as earth.
Inez saw it all again: the cigarette, and the man, and the creature’s arm raised knifelike in the air. A threat, and a response. She’d only seen it respond like that once, but judging by that sign, she guessed it had happened before, and often, who knew how long ago. How many small wars had the creature waged before someone had taken pity on it and written the restrictions that hung over the place?
Too many, of course. It was always too many.
The sun retreated and plunged the bank into shadow. She looked up, but found her vision swimming. The creature was closer now, an unreadable blur of gold and green. Inez shuddered under its unyielding stare. Her smile grew heavy on her face, and fell away without a sound.
She peeled her limbs away from the flowerbed and stood. Papery yellow petals came away with her, stuck with sweat to her skin. The moments of her life from before then unspooled behind her eyes, faded by time but still clinging like old stains to the fabric of her memory. She didn’t want them.
Her heart pounded. “Do you want me to leave?” Inez asked in a small voice.
The creature gave no response. The warmth in her chest turned sour.
“Do you?” she said, louder now, though a shameful crack in her voice split the word. Dread wormed a cold trail through her. She didn’t need an answer to know it was true, but the miserable reality of it hollowed out her chest. She swallowed down a sob.
The creature’s form shrank back at the accusation, all of its flowers returned to buds.
It wouldn’t have been the first thing to want her gone. Wouldn’t have been the first place better off without her.
Inez knew pity when she saw it. It looked just like disdain, but with a prettier face.
She stumbled back a step, then another, until the hedge she’d first emerged from brushed her ankles.
She really hadn’t learned anything, had she?
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. Her feet scrabbled for purchase on uneven ground. “I just wanted—I just—”
Inez turned and ran. The tears finally fell as she lurched through the bushes, over brittle grass and twigs that jabbed like needles. Each one another twist of the knife, a reminder of what she had known before ever climbing that fence but had refused to admit.
She didn’t belong here.
But it was worse than that, and she knew it. She didn’t belong anywhere.
A root smacked her ankle, and Inez tumbled into the dirt with a weak yelp of pain. Every heaving of her breath scorched like swallowing a red-hot sword. She pushed herself up on limp arms. Stinging outside and in, she clambered backwards until she hit a tree’s gnarled trunk, decked in winding dark leaves. Then she hugged her knees to her chest and wept into her hands.
She wished the earth would just swallow her up. If she could just bury all her deluded fantasies and dissolve into the soil, maybe something good and useful would finally grow out of her, something that deserved to be there in that fence, a part of that system.
Loved. Or worth loving, anyway.
And that was just it.
The nameless weight beneath Inez’s ribs swelled and flooded her chest with a gloom blacker than her mother’s lungs.
She couldn’t breathe, again. She fished out her inhaler from her pocket and took a puff, barely able hold it steady. The last time she’d triggered an attack from crying had been the night she flushed the drugs. She could almost smell the smoke again. Could still feel the grain of her bedroom door grate against her shuddering back.
Her breath returned in gasps, a thousand aches with it.
Just barely, on the edge of the forest’s din, Inez heard rustling. The foliage beneath her shook.
A whorl of vines crept away from trunk and curled around her, covered in enormous scarlet roses. The mass encircled her in moments, overflowing with the balmy scent of petals. She gasped, and a rose-dappled vine reached out and swept over her bruised cheek, wiping away the last tear still inching down through the grime.
Something had grabbed hold of her lungs again, and her heart too, and held them with such puzzling fortitude and tenderness that Inez thought she would weep again.
The mass of vines and roses embraced her. Softly and resolutely. Tenderly and fiercely. The way her mother used to, before everything went wrong. She’d forgotten what it felt like.
She exhaled and sank into the creature’s arms. Links of thornless blooming vine cradled her, stroking her hair in the same smooth motions her hands had used in the patch of flowers back by the stream.
“Why are you doing this?” she whispered. “I’m just the same as them.”
A low hum reverberated from deep in the petals, but Inez couldn’t decipher its meaning. The creature only held her tighter when she made no reply.
Inez breathed until the pain in her throat subsided to a faint prickling numbness. She wanted to lie down until she remembered nothing of her mother or the gray-stained house she’d run from. But the memories clung to her bones like weeds. She wondered if she would ever be able to uproot them without also uprooting herself. If she would ever be as green and blooming and free as the things that held her inside the fence.
Hesitantly, Inez reached into the leaves and returned the embrace.
The creature’s silken-edged form stiffened, then recoiled. The climbing roses and vines receded, slumping limp against the trunk.
By the time she’d gasped and called out brokenly after it, the creature was already gone. Inez stood. Confusion struck her first, then cold terror. Something was wrong. Goosebumps mottled her bare arms and legs. She stared hollowly into the horizon for a long time.
When a breeze blew, she tasted smoke on it.
Not the bitter tobacco, lung-rotting stuff. Worse. The kind that swallowed houses and skin. The kind that cooked.
Inez went rigid. All the green around her swayed as one vast wall, revealing almost nothing. No more than a few slivers of sky to search, and no sign of the stench’s source.
“Move, just move,” she spat at her quaking knees. “Where are you?” she cried up at the trees.
Then, voices. Men’s voices, the words turned garbled and staticky by distance. The murmurs became yelling, and by the time Inez had turned in their direction, three men careened out of the trunks’ thick barricade.
They nearly barreled into her, but the one leading the charge skidded to a stop just inches in front of Inez. His scuffed combat boots kicked up a small cloud of dirt.
A flock of birds scattered noisily from the treetops.
“Holy shit,” he whispered. Inez flinched at the rancid booze on his breath. “It’s you.”
Two others crowded at his back. They could have been triplets, for their shared tawny hair and pasty white faces. A lopsided tattoo of a tiger stared directly at her from one’s bare shoulder.
Inez blinked, unable to call any words to her tongue.
“I told you someone else was there,” Combat Boots said over his shoulder with a laugh. He stepped toward her, and she stumbled back in turn. Her pulse boomed in her ears.
“Who cares, dude? Let’s get the hell out of here,” interjected one of the others, grasping his friend by the shoulder and giving it a good shake. Shaggy hair obscured most of his face, except for a lip ring that glinted in the sun.
Combat Boots laughed louder. His right hand clutched an open lighter, the flame thrashing.
All the warmth drained out of Inez.
“I was right. All along—about everything, I was right. What do you think of that, assholes?” he howled, turning on his heels. Inez barely ducked out of the lighter’s arc.
Tiger Tattoo stepped aside. “You’re out of your damn mind!” he scoffed. “I’m not about to die here.”
The smell of the smoke was stronger now. Past the undulating trees, Inez thought she glimpsed a smudge of gray. “What did you do?” she muttered, slack-jawed.
She took another step back, but Combat Boots swung around and seized her wrist. She yelped; his bony fingers held deceptively strong.
“Let go of me.” She tugged hard, but he clamped down harder. “Ow—stop! Let go!”
A tremor traveled up her legs from the ground.
Lip Ring and Tiger Tattoo glanced at each other, then broke out running, following their original course into the treeline.
Another tremor, then another. Softly, in the back of her skull, a familiar hum sounded.
“You know I’m right. You were right there with me,” Combat Boots ranted, pressing his pale, pocked face in close.
Inez had readied a leg to kick him where it would hurt, when thundering footsteps broke in. The air smelled like death.
The treeline shattered open.
Inez barely recognized the willow. Swirling fire engulfed its extremities, each wispy vine a wick. Dark billows rose thickly from its upper half. It looked hasty, incomplete, the trunk barely divided enough for movement. It limped forward, and each ungainly step filled the air with a cacophony of dreadful cracks. Behind it, a trail of red and black cut into the park as far as Inez could see.
The air was kindling.
She wanted to scream, but her lips formed useless shapes around nothing and made no sound. Combat Boots’ grin melted away. He released her arm and ran.
The willow screeched, heaving after him. One leg splintered apart as soon as it met earth, and the whole creature teetered, then came crumpling thunderously down. Breathless, she couldn’t call out for it.
Embers flew, swallowing the brittle foliage in a flood of char. The willow craned the blackened remains of its head down and made a high, broken sound, then collapsed in a tide of cinders.
Tears and smoke burned Inez’s eyes. She whipped around and around, but couldn’t find the trees, or the sky, or the creature. Ash coated her tongue and crept down her throat no matter how she coughed. She fell to her knees and wheezed helplessly.
Everything was falling apart again.
Nowhere to run. The air was red, her sweat was red, her thoughts were red.
There was a choice, a choice. What was it?
Inez reached for her inhaler.
But it was gone.
—or get wiped out.
Darkness descended. It swallowed her whole and washed away the scorched clearing. A rough and solid slab slipped under her legs and hoisted her up, and up, and up from the ground. She scrabbled for balance, gasping weakly. Her fingertips scraped bark.
Cracks of light revealed the mass shielding her: a thick canopy of leaves.
Inez reached out to touch them, and her inhaler fell into her palm with a muted thump. She took two doses. On her first good breath she tasted foliage, then hacked out black dust.
The tree lurched into motion. The branch beneath her shifted and nestled her against the upper part of the trunk. She heard the distant crackle of fire, and vaguely smelled the smoke. More than anything she felt the rocking of the tree, of the giant as it walked, cradling her against its bulk.
Lost for words, she took deep, grateful breaths of the mossy bark. Tears streamed through the dust on her face, over her cracked lips, and onto the tree.
She was alive.
Seconds or minutes or hours passed before the creature creaked to a halt, and Inez’s forehead lightly smacked its rough flesh. The limb that held her curled up and drew her away from the trunk.
Air crashed over her. The shield of leaves unraveled and bared her to the sunlight. She blinked, and saw the chugging smoke leaking from the center of the park, how glowing fire split the trees with crimson light. For a moment she soared, weightless, against the bleeding sky. Then the branch that bore her stretched and tilted. She slipped from bark to concrete.
Sidewalk chilled her feet. A shape heaved through the air and smacked the pavement: her backpack.
The creature pulled away, back toward the burning forest.
Inez howled with every last shard of herself, “No!” She shot forward, fingers grasping the rusted fence.
The creature’s limbs groaned as it withdrew, unheeding. Fear thundered in her skull. She hauled herself halfway up the fence in an instant, until the tree turned back to her in a creaking blur. Bark met her shoulders, leaves pried her fingers open. Together they pushed her, struggling, back down to the pavement.
Sirens resounded from the verging streets.
“Don’t go back in there.” she rasped, fresh tears stinging in her eyes.
This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t save her just to disappear again. She was so tired of being left, of being alone.
“It’s too late. You’ll burn.”
The creature replied something just as broken. Still, it pushed her to the sidewalk.
“Don’t, please. Stay with me,” she cried, clutching the branch and tugging it closer. Leaves caressed her face.
The giant murmured quietly and pressed itself into her hands for just a moment, then pulled away. Behind the fence, the creature turned and stomped back into the forest as fire engines pulled up on the street, and Inez wept, drowned out by the sirens.
When figures began to pour from the trucks, she scrambled across the street and deposited herself on a bench beside a dried-up fountain. Flocks of chattering onlookers crowded at the fence as the minutes drew on and smoke stole the color from the sky. None spoke to her, and she didn’t speak to them.
Once she turned her back to the park, and the fire, and all the clamor of the scene, she didn’t look back. She wouldn’t.
It was what she’d done when she left her mother. She made her choice and knew not to turn around, but not because she’d go back if she did. She couldn’t look back and move forward at the same time. She had to choose. So she chose running. She chose a future, just like she’d done before.
Dread and shame roiled together in her chest. She’d had no right to beg a guardian to abandon its duty, its home, for her. She was nobody.
She’d been so naïve, thinking that running away was the same as escaping. The same as healing. But distance had nothing to do with it. There was no escaping the past, just learning to carry it.
Her mother, that house, they were just memories. Soon the park would be too. There were so many hollow places in her now; she had more than enough room to keep them safe. She could carry them forever.
Inez sat quietly for a long time. Then she put on her shoes and walked to the train station.
Inside, the building was even colder than before, with polished floors that squeaked with every footfall. She passed at least ten TVs, their screens all flashing red, alternating headlines reading, FIRE IN OLD LANDMARK WERIFEST PARK. AUTHORITIES RESPONDING TO REPORTS OF UNIDENTIFIED FIGURE SEEN WITHIN.
Groups huddled beneath the television sets, their eyes squinted, gesturing emphatically at the footage of the fire, but Inez was too far away to see what captivated them. They paid no mind to her or her ash-caked clothes.
She washed herself clean in a bleached white bathroom. The soap smelled harsh and fruity, and it erased the must of scorched earth from her skin. When at last she scrubbed at the tracks her tears had left in the dirt on her face, the door squealed across the tile, and a woman walked in.
Contorted over the sink, Inez froze, and the stranger did too. She was blonde, with ivory skin, and wore a red pantsuit. Her eyes examined Inez with scalpel sharpness for only a second, then softened to glimmering amber.
Droplets of lukewarm water ran down Inez’s chin and puddled on the floor. The woman’s hands flexed around the handle of her purse. In a saccharine voice that could only belong to a teacher of small children, she asked, “Are you all right, dear?”
“Yeah,” Inez said.
“Are you sure?”
She wiped her chin. “Yeah.”
The woman’s lipstick was the color of freshly bloomed roses. “Do you . . . need anything? Is there anything I can do for you?”
The woman bought her a ticket for the train. When asked where she wanted to go, all Inez could think to say was, “Somewhere green, with no fences.” No more skyscrapers, no more smoke, and no more living things in cages. She was sick of suffocating.
They stood together on the platform afterward, and Inez thanked her, clutching her ticket. The woman just smiled, nodded, and pressed her hand on Inez’s shoulder briefly. She watched the slight jerk of the woman’s eyes as they flickered between her face and the news still playing on the TV behind her.
She expected some kind of warning. A “be careful out there” or, “take care of yourself.” But all she said was, “The world is a very big place, you know. It’s easy to get lost in.”
But it’s not, Inez wanted to say. It’s not. It’s very small. And everything burns just the same everywhere. Burns again, and again, and again. The only thing that changes is who gets blamed.
No words came. The woman smiled blankly, then turned and left, and so did Inez.
Practically deserted, the train started off with a metallic screech the moment Inez sat down. She let her backpack slide off her shoulders. A tunnel swallowed the car in darkness, and sleep stole her away before the light returned.
When she woke, the train was still moving, but the city was long gone. The woman had slipped her some extra cash before leaving, which she’d spent on a ridiculously expensive sandwich at the nearest food cart to her track. She scarfed the whole thing down in huge, graceless bites. Her stomach soured and ached after that, so she pulled her knees to her chest and stared out the long, scuffed window at the landscape whistling by.
The train passed sun-bleached hills dotted with sparse, squat houses, though for the most part, the land was sprawling and desolate. The weights in her chest shifted and settled and scratched at her like a bundle of needles. The train car was gray and the upholstery smelled just faintly of cigarettes.
Inez put her head into her hands. A soft rustling sound stirred between her ears.
She jerked up, and found bright flickers dancing in her peripheral vision. She turned to the window.
A swarm of golden petals floated astride the train, undulating like a murmuration. Inez gasped, then keened, and pressed her burnt palm to the glass.
A cluster of petals pressed back, vaguely in the shape of a hand.