High in the Clean Blue Air

The plan was, Elena would meet me for a swim and I’d stay one night in her family cabin before continuing on to Canada, alone. I told her I was hitchhiking through Duluth and up Highway 61, which was only half a lie; the route was real, if not the means of transportation. I’d been longing for the north shore, yet when I’d looked down upon the sun-glittered glory of Lake Superior that morning, my body buffeted by its familiar stone-scented winds, I’d been confused when the sight of the water hadn’t instantly assuaged my missing. That ache didn’t vanish until I saw Elena.

I was slow on the uptake, as always, with my human emotions.

Elena cried when she saw me and held me so tightly I couldn’t help but squeeze back, though I was out of practice with affection.

“God, I missed your weird little face,” she said.

She was my oldest friend. We hadn’t seen each other in nearly five years, not since her mother had died and she’d emailed to say, “Come,” and I’d flown all night to arrive on her doorstep. That time I’d stayed weeks, but this time I’d caught wind that someone had been asking questions about me, questions only the agent of a Collector would ask, and I couldn’t risk more than one night to wait for her to fall asleep, take what I had come to take, and hide again.

“You’ll stay with me on your way back down, though, right?” Elena said, laying a blanket on the rocky lakeshore. “I’ll have Rosa next week, you can finally meet her.”

Rosa was the four-year-old daughter she had half-time, a child whose picture I’d seen in emails but with whom I’d never quite managed to come face-to-face.

“I’m not coming back down,” I said, and I could smell her disappointment, like crumbling leaves. I didn’t tell her how difficult it was to take even these few hours with her, feigning relaxation, my thoughts all the while circling her cabin and planning my next moves. But it calmed me to pretend to myself, too, that I was here for the simple human pleasure of seeing her.

The water was clear and blue like the hot August sky, and Elena spread out on the stones to bake a minute while I plunged right in. The cold was so brutal and pure it nearly called me right out of my human body—if anyone had been looking at me, I was sure my eyes would’ve flashed summer-red. I couldn’t help but scream in joy. After a few minutes, Elena came into the water, too, much slower, going, “Ah! Ah! Ohholyshit!” with every step, until finally she was up to her neck and gasping. We bobbed there, two floating heads, grinning at each other, and I felt as if we’d never been apart at all.

Elena and I had been swimming in this lake together since we were little kids, and in fact we’d met in the lake—although she didn’t know that. As far as she was concerned we’d met in the ice cream aisle of the local co-op, staring in twin longing at the freezer-burned pints. Actually, I’d followed her there, because she had thrown bread at me in the water the day before, and I’d liked the sound of her laughter. That day I had ice cream for the first time, chocolate, and Elena read to me from a picture book about skiing and trolls, neither of which I’d ever heard of. I’d followed my parents to Florida each winter and had never seen snow.

“Does Rosa like swimming?” I asked, paddling. The question slipped out before I could check it. I didn’t want to be curious about Rosa. Didn’t need another person to bind me, or to betray.

“Are you kidding?” Elena said. “She’s an arctic fish. Last summer I put in a garden at the cabin and Rosa was angry I hadn’t put in a pool instead.”

I glanced at her sharply. “A garden? Where?”

“Back acre,” said Elena. “I didn’t touch the well, don’t worry.”

“I like the well,” I said, though of course my concern went far deeper than that.

“I know you do. Rosa thinks it’s spooky.”

“Good,” I said. “She’ll keep away.” Elena looked at me. “It’s dangerous,” I added.

“Next I’m dreaming about paving the driveway, so it’s not such a pain in winter.”

“City slicker!”

She laughed, and splashed a handful of water at me. “What about you, Alice?” she said. “What do you dream of?”

“Me, no dreams,” I said.

“Let’s say you knew you were going to die tomorrow,” she said. “What would you regret not having done?”

I winced. My regrets ran more along the lines of things I had done. I thought of the desolate, rageful spring when I’d taken my own Collector’s commission, after Roscoe had broken my heart. For a giddy moment I wondered what would happen if I told Elena the truth, if I said, “I regret stealing and selling Roscoe’s soul,” if I told her everything, the whole story about me, what I was.

Instead I said, surprising myself, “I’d regret never meeting your child.”

Elena rolled her eyes extravagantly, then dove below the surface and came up beside me, water flattening her brown curls to her head, an animal grace in the way she swam. For a moment, she looked like one of us. “Stay three more days and you won’t regret a thing.”

“But in this thought experiment, I’m dying tomorrow. So it would be too late.”

“I’m teaching her how to read,” Elena said. “She’s a quick learner. Like you were.”

I held my breath and went under.


My parents lived most of their lives in their other bodies, as loons, and they were reluctant participants in human affairs. When I began to spend time with Elena and her family, when I began to beg for books, for conversation, they were bewildered. They didn’t care for human culture or human food, not even ice cream, and neither were they particularly interested in human terrors, like war or bigotry. Instead, Collectors had been the reigning horror of my childhood. More frightening than raptors or oil spills or a fish with a hidden hook in its lip. Collectors paid money for our souls and put them in iron cages, and a soul behind iron could not change.

“Never tell anyone where you keep your soul,” my parents repeated to me over and over. It was our one family rule, aside from the obvious: do not reveal yourself to true humans. They parented like loons, by competence and instinct, interested in my survival but nothing deeper. Part of what had first attracted me to my other side was watching human parents with their children, how tender they could be, how loving. The good ones, anyway. People like Elena’s mother, who hugged and kissed me every time she saw me, cupping my face in her hands, reading aloud to me. I had no doubts Elena herself was such a mother. Did Rosa know how lucky she was?

The summer I was sixteen, my parents flew on to Florida without me and I never saw them again. After they disappeared, I stayed human for a whole year, as a fuck-you they’d never hear. I lived only in my human body, a small woman with dark eyes. Even when the northern lights shuddered and sang, even when the clouds were dyed sweet with pink dawn, even when my phantom wings ached to spread, I stayed grounded.

That didn’t last, of course. It was horrible. Nowadays I did one month on, one month off, trying not to lose myself to either. If I stayed too long in one body, I longed for the other. I was happiest in balance.

On the way to Elena’s house, both of us soaking the cloth seats of her car, Elena asked me, “Why did you come? I know it’s not to see me.” When I began to protest, she amended, “Or, not just to see me.”

I couldn’t tell her that word on the wing spoke of someone asking a Collector’s questions, questions like, “Wasn’t there a family of us living around here? Where did they spend their time? What did they love?” I’d asked such questions myself, in Maine, and finally found Roscoe’s soul in a small pine box sewn into a stuffed elephant locked in a cedar chest beneath the floorboards of an old sailboat abandoned by the lake where he’d grown up.

All of us were instinctual sentimentalists. We couldn’t put our souls anywhere empty of meaning. Was that why I hadn’t re-hidden my own soul after all these years? Or was it because I was waiting? Waiting for what I deserved. Waiting to see him again.

To Elena I told another partial truth. “I missed the lake,” I said. “And you.”

She didn’t reply, and for a while we drove in silence. Then she said, “Do you remember when you stayed with us for a few weeks after your parents took off?”

“Of course I remember,” I said. Curled on a cot in her bedroom in Minneapolis, laughing as her mother begged us to go to sleep; throwing sticks for her huge, clumsy labrador; trying on jeans in the Goodwill, pretending it was my real life, a life I wouldn’t fly away from.

“I asked my mom to adopt you,” Elena said.

I looked at her. She was intent on the road, her curls obscuring her face except for the tip of her long nose. I’d seen in photographs that Rosa had those same curls. So had Elena’s mother. And the same long nose, same small stature, though with more bosom. She’d had a big crackling laugh that rolled through her like a rainstorm. I remembered the exact feeling of her hugs, how she’d had to reach up to hold me, but always pulled me down into her like I was the smaller one. I swallowed a lump in my throat. I had to ask. “What did she say?”

“She said yes, of course.” Elena flicked her turn signal. “She loved you. You could have stayed forever.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“You left before I could say anything.” She moved a shoulder up. “I was thinking about it recently. How, for a few days, I thought maybe I’d have a sister.”

Words wouldn’t come. I stared at the green of the sunlit hills.

“Anyway,” Elena said, clearing her throat, “I’m thinking of having another baby. A friend’s offered to, you know, supply the missing ingredients. I want Rosa to have someone, someone to remember her childhood with her when I’m gone. That’s why I was thinking about it.”

“I always wanted a sister,” I said.

“Well,” said Elena lightly, “you could’ve had one.”

But I couldn’t have. We weren’t even the same species. It wasn’t worth asking what-if. I kept my eyes on the country highway. The trees, the clouds, the flowers, everything was vivid and shining in the midday heat, and when the man appeared at the turnoff, for a moment he looked more mirage than a person. Blue t-shirt like the blue sky, beige pants like the dry grass. Thumb out.

“Poor guy, it’s a million degrees,” said Elena, foot on the brake.

Like a nightmare, I couldn’t make a sound. I could barely breathe. I mouthed, “Don’t,” and it came out in a wheeze, already too late. Elena had slowed just enough for Roscoe to see me in the front seat and throw himself in front of the car. Elena slammed on the brakes, skidding, shrieking, and Roscoe moved so quickly neither one of us had time to react. He’d wrenched open the door to the backseat and hurled himself inside before the car had even come to a complete rest.

“Thanks for stopping,” he said. He was panting slightly.

“What the fuck!” said Elena.

“Get out,” I said, finding my voice. “Get out.”

“I just need a quick ride,” he said to Elena, ignoring me. “You can give a guy a ride, can’t you?”

“Not a guy who jumps in front of a moving vehicle! Are you out of your mind?”

“I’m sorry,” Roscoe said. He sounded so sincere, so human. “No one was stopping, I was getting desperate. I messed up my ankle and I swear I’m about to pass out from the sun. It’s brutal today.” He had dust in his black hair and his nose was peeling from sunburn and I saw Elena take this in, saw her soften.

“No,” I said.

“It’s okay, I understand,” Roscoe said, and put a hand on the door like maybe he would leave. “I don’t trust men, either.” He met my eyes in the rearview. “When I’m driving, I only pick up chicks.”

Chicks. I heard the threat like he’d screamed it. Quiet, or I tell your human friend what you are. Quiet, or I call you out the hard way.

I was silent, my head spinning with the scent of him and with the fear of losing Elena.

“Well, where are you trying to go?” Elena said. Like her mother, she was an impossibly soft touch for anyone who seemed lost. That was how she ended up with me.

“However far you’ll take me,” Roscoe said. “I’ll catch my next ride from there. I’ve got ten bucks for gas if you need it.”

Elena sighed. She put the car in gear. She drove, she relaxed, she made small talk, but I couldn’t speak. I kept glancing at him in the mirror, a face I’d once loved, the face of the worst thing I’d ever done. He looked older—of course he did, it’d been over a decade since I’d seen him, but he was the same Roscoe, still small-boned and strong, his eyes huge and bright. The smell of him was overwhelming, not only for the memories it brought back, those unbidden flashbacks of tenderness and joy, but also because I could smell what I’d done to him. I could smell the iron-barred soul in the heart of him, could smell a decade of humanity settled uneasy in his animal’s bones. I knew why he was here.

We’d met in spring, in the sky over Ontario. Before Roscoe, sex had been purely animal regardless what form I took, a physical urge but not an emotional one. And I’d only ever sought sex in my human form, in part because humans have birth control and I didn’t want to get pregnant, and also because I liked to sleep with bodies of many genders, and humans tended to be more physically creative in that regard. But the first time Roscoe and I slept together, we were loons.

It was so different than with humans; more focused, a direct act of rustling feathers and determination, the compulsion to find sticks and nest. As a bird, I wasn’t critical. I didn’t have the neurological wiring for critique. My thoughts didn’t progress as they did in my human brain, in sentences, with logic—they were flashes and urges, darting lights like silvery fish, and that’s what it was like with Roscoe. All sensation.

I loved being all sides of myself with him. When we had fingers and mouths, we held hands and talked about our lives. Both our parents had chosen to live as loons, and Roscoe always told me he was inclined to do the same, but for me, for us, he agreed on equilibrium. We flew together, we dove for our dinner, we went to the movies, we made tacos, we slept in the cold Canadian waters. We lived in a small-town motel and in the forest. I had a part-time job at a library. On nights when we were human, I read novels aloud to Roscoe, whose literacy was low, and he listened with such attention that it felt like adoration.

It was like this for two years. Did I miss the signs? Yes: I missed them willfully. He started spending weeks away, flying, fishing; he spent weeks at home but silent, unresponsive to conversation, and I was too scared to complain or question. I was terrified of saying the wrong thing, of being too human and making him leave me.

Our third autumn came. Roscoe said, over waffles at a diner, “I want to head south this year.”

I disagreed. I didn’t want to migrate. I wanted to stay the winter again and be mostly people with him, maintain our human rhythms. Make fires. Fly through snow. Read poems.

“I’m out of balance,” he said. “This body’s weighing me down. I’m sick of speaking.”

“Can you wait two weeks?” I said. I figured that was all the time I’d need to talk him out of it. “I’ll put in notice at work tomorrow.”

He’d raised an eyebrow. “Notice?”

“So they’ll hire me again when we come back.”

“Oh,” he said, and glanced past me, out the diner window, his eyes skimming the sky. “Sure.”

He was gone a few days later.

Dear Alice, he wrote, I know what you need and I can’t give it to you. The in-between hurts. I’m not like you. I had to fly. I’m sorry. Love Roscoe.

I left immediately, I flew so hard I nearly dropped from the sky, and I never found him. From beach to beach, all up and down the southern coast, not a word, not a sign. It was my parents all over again, but somehow worse, because they’d never even tried to know me. Roscoe had. He’d known me, seen me, and left me anyway.

I wasn’t thinking. I was all feeling. I went to Maine, to his childhood home, where I thought back on everything he had told me, and I asked all the right questions of all the right people, and eventually I found his soul, glowing in its layers of concealment. If he couldn’t balance his nature for me, then I’d tip it to one side forever, a punishment.

A Collector in Boston had paid me five hundred thousand dollars cash for that soul—money I’d carried around for years and never touched. I still had every cent, sewn into the lining of the leather bag I wore when I changed so it changed with me. Any time I thought of using even a dollar, I remembered watching as Roscoe’s shimmering brilliance was locked carefully behind bars of iron, to be displayed in hidden parlors and at secret trade shows and on the mantlepiece of this old human man, who licked his lips as he turned the key. Somewhere, I knew, Roscoe felt the bars constrict.

Later, I tried to soothe my guilt by reading books about the wild acts conceived in human heartbreak: men who starved themselves for the love of long-dead women, women who never took off their doomed wedding dresses, countless murders, protracted revenges. See? I tried to tell myself. You’re not alone. But I was. It’s isolating to know one’s own capability for cruelty.

Whatever body Roscoe had been in at the time of the locking would always be his body. I’d long wondered which it was, and finally I had my answer. He was human. I had grounded him forever.

Of course he was here, now, to do the same to me.

In the car, Elena had realized something was wrong—truly wrong. She and Roscoe were chatting about freight trains, but I could tell her breeziness was now a show. She kept looking at me with a nervous, searching gaze.

“You know,” she said, as we passed through her tiny downtown, “we’re headed somewhere pretty off-grid, so it’ll be best for you if we drop you at the gas station. You’ll be way more likely to catch another ride.”

“Oh,” said Roscoe, “that’s not—I don’t mind if—”

But she was already pulling over in the parking lot of the gas station, and relief spilled through me. “We don’t want to inconvenience you,” I said.

“That’s bird-brained,” he said. “It’s no inconvenience.”

Again, the veiled threat. But I was calmer now, and could think it through. Even if he told Elena, she wouldn’t believe him. To her his accusations would sound like ravings, the words of someone whose version of reality couldn’t be trusted. Dropping him here would not stop him, but it would buy me time, time enough to get to Elena’s and go into the well where I’d hidden my soul those years ago. By the time he reached us, my soul and I would be long gone. He was on foot. I still had wings.

“Get out or we’ll start screaming,” I said. There was a big man nearby filling the tank of his four-wheeler, and I could see people through the gas station windows. Elena’s eyes went wide with fear. I could invent a story for her later, but for now I was done pretending this man meant nothing to me.

Roscoe shifted his backpack, getting ready to leave. “Alice,” he said. He, too, was done pretending. “You know what you did to me.”

“I shouldn’t have done it,” I said. “I wish to god I hadn’t. But you need to walk away from this car, right now.”

“Take me to the cabin,” he said, and raised his hand towards the driver’s seat, towards Elena’s head. He was holding a gun, and he cocked it. Elena let out a half-strangled moan of fear. He pressed the metal to the soft crook of her neck, below her ear, a place somebody else might kiss. His face was anguished. “Drive,” he said.

“Don’t hurt her,” I said, my voice unrecognizably high. “Please don’t hurt her. She didn’t do anything. She has a child.”

“Drive,” he repeated.

“Alice,” Elena whispered, and started to drive.

Down the main street, where I prayed someone passing would notice the gun, and no one did. A turn at the boulder painted with an American flag. A turn onto the dirt road that ran along the river, for four miles until the turn at the rusted sedan nestled in the pines. As we passed I smelled the heat of its oxidized metal, crumbling and sharp. We jounced on rocks and roots into the cool air of the forest to Elena’s little cabin, crouched in the hushed arms of the boreal trees.

Elena stopped the car, the motor ticking. She wasn’t crying, but her face was drained of blood and her breath was coming fast, hyperventilating. By sheer force of will I didn’t look in the direction of the old stone well, in shadow along the edge of the grass.

“I remember you talking about this place,” Roscoe said, gun still fixed to Elena’s neck, his eyes passing over the cabin, the land, and I saw them hover over the well. My pulse was stammering. “You said it was beautiful. It is beautiful.”

“Please,” Elena said.

Roscoe looked at me. His eyes were as I remembered them, lovely and vast, and now they were filling with tears. “I hate doing this,” he said. “But this is how people get what they want, and I’ve been people for ten years. This brain, all it does is talk. I look up, but I can’t get there. The trees are just trees. When I go in the water, it takes me right down. You did this to me.”

“Yes,” I said. “But you don’t want to hurt Elena.”

“No, I don’t,” he said. “But I will. Get out of the car.”

We got out, all three of us, Roscoe with the gun trained always on Elena’s body. The day was so hot. Earlier it had been a languorous pleasure, but now the heat was ominous, oppressive. The flies were hysterical. I took Elena’s hand, and Roscoe didn’t stop me. She squeezed my fingers so tightly.

“You told me about this well,” Roscoe said. “I remember. You said you used to look down into it, and shout your own name to hear the echo.”

I was nauseous with fear, I couldn’t speak.

“Let’s go,” he said, his gun at Elena’s back now, nudging her spine. We moved forward, past Elena’s car, past the cabin, through the grass and flowers and weeds, and towards the well, towards that familiar algae-scent of old water and wet stones. Towards the bundle I’d hidden there, five years ago. By the time we were standing around its stone lip, my knees were shaking, and I could barely hold myself up. Roscoe peered into the depths, tracking the damp, mossy stones until they faded into darkness, and Elena looked up at me, face tight with fear. She mouthed something I didn’t catch, and I shook my head minutely, panicked. She did it again. Nothing.

Roscoe was examining the rusted hand crank, testing the frayed rope with one hand. It stretched down past the limits of light, and with clear relief he noted the tension from the heavy bucket dangling on the other end. “Get on your knees,” he told Elena, following her descent with his gun, and to me he said, “Pull it up.”

I searched my imagination for a fruitless second, looking for a way to reroute what was happening. I imagined scenes of Elena dodging, me knocking the gun out of Roscoe’s hand, both of us pushing him into the well. Maybe I could even shoot him, in the leg or the arm; it wouldn’t be the worst thing I’d done to him. But Roscoe said, “Pull it up, Alice,” with the gun barrel still pressed tight against the back of Elena’s head. So I reached for the crank and began to turn it.

The metal was rusty and, at first, nearly impossible to budge. This had been part of the appeal. I had to lean my whole weight against it, straining from the effort until sweat dripped down my nose and the veins stood out in my tightly-clenched hands, metal biting into my palms. Then finally, a creak, a rasping groan, and the crank shifted minutely. Another jolt and it began to turn. It was agonizingly slow, each rotation taking all my strength, but the rope was winding and the bucket was rising. By the time the wooden slats of the mouth came into view, tears were leaking from my eyes.

Roscoe was speaking. “You didn’t give me a choice, but I’ll give you one, before you’re locked in. Will you stay in this body, or will you shift? Me, I don’t know what I’d choose, not these days. You don’t know what I’d do to dive headfirst into cold water. But there are people I’d miss. Conversations I want to have. If you’d asked me back then, I would have chosen bird. In a heartbeat. Probably you knew that. Did you know that?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You would’ve picked human,” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“See?” he said, and he was crying a little too. “That’s why I couldn’t stay. I thought I was doing it for both of us, leaving. Clean, natural, no talking, no human confusion. I’m better at talking now. But then it seemed easier to just go. Come on, keep pulling, all the way up.”

I’d stopped cranking while he spoke, the bucket hovering just below the well’s edge. Meanwhile, Elena caught my eye. Again, her lips moved silently. Again. Nothing, she was saying, or maybe it was neither. Roscoe twitched the gun against her head, and I turned the crank, once, twice, and the bucket came up into the sunlight. Roscoe stared at it, then at the gun in his hand.

“Empty the bucket,” he said. “Right there.”

I closed my eyes as I overturned it at his feet. I didn’t want to see it: the layers of waterproof bags that held a long-empty gallon of ice cream that held a hollowed-out copy of The Golden Compass that held a little flashlight with one of Elena’s mother’s silk scarves jammed into its battery compartment, a silk scarf that was wrapped around a locket that held the spark of my soul.

I heard the thunk as it all hit the ground.

“What the hell,” said Roscoe.

I opened my eyes. I closed them, blinked hard, looked again. There was a stone on the grass by the overturned bucket. Just that: a large stone.

“Alice, what the hell is this?”

I was as shocked as he was. I stared at him, caught between horror and elation. “I didn’t—I don’t—”

Roscoe grabbed Elena by the hair and shoved his gun harder into her temple, his movements empty of grace, out of control. “Tell me where your soul is right now or I’ll kill her. I swear I will!”

“I don’t know!” I shrieked. “I don’t know! I put it in the well! It was in the well!”

“You’re lying!” Roscoe shouted. “You know where your own fucking soul is! You fucking know! Do you want me to shoot your friend in the head, is that what you want, you want her daughter to lose her mother and—”

“I moved it!” Elena gasped. We both looked at her, at her pale face, huge eyes. “I moved it last year, someone from the county came by to check the water, so I moved it somewhere safer!”

My head spun, vision blurring. “Elena, what are you saying?”

“I’m saying it’s not there!”

Not there. That’s what she’d been trying to tell me.

“Wait,” I said. “No. You—?”

“I know what you are,” Elena said. “I’ve known since we were sixteen. I didn’t know that thing in the well was your—your soul, but I knew it was important, I knew it had to be kept safe, so I’ve been guarding it for you.”

I stared at her, unable to wrap my mind around her words. She knew. She’d known for years.

Elena turned to Roscoe, fierce. “If you kill me, neither of you will ever find it again.”

He was staring at her, his expression bleak, teeth gritted. I couldn’t take my eyes from the gun in his hand. His wrist flexed, the barrel twitching, and I cried out—but he was only lowering it to his side, where it hung limply from his fingers.

“Fuck,” he said. He sounded like the wind had been knocked from his lungs. “I can’t do this.”

Elena, still on her knees, clutched a handful of grass, as if trying to tether herself against hope. I didn’t move.

“You know how long it took me to figure out it was you?” he said to me. “Years. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it.”

“I tried to buy it back,” I said. “It’s not an excuse. But I tried. A few months later. When I wasn’t so angry at you. I’m not making an excuse—I just want you to know I regret what I did. But the Collector had moved, I never found him again, I’d never even known his name.”

“I found him,” Roscoe said. His voice was bleak. “I was going to trade. Your soul for mine. That’s the only deal he’d make: a soul for a soul. That, or half a million dollars and a private shifting demonstration every goddamn year for the rest of his life. I saved almost half but then my wife got sick and I spent it on bills.”

“Your wife?” I said, unable to help myself.

“Got married,” Roscoe said. “Human lady. She’s healthy now. Drove me to the airport–thinks I’m visiting old friends. I guess I am.” He smiled, for the first time, and I was surprised I still felt the same old ache. “Only good thing about what you did. I never would’ve stayed if I’d been able to shift. It’s too hard to be people by choice. The love is too intense.” His gaze flickered to Elena, who was glaring at him from her knees, and then back at me. “Except for you. You’re not like the rest of us.”

I thought of Rosa, her small face as I’d seen it in photographs. When Elena first told me she was pregnant, I’d felt only horror. How will she stand it? I’d thought, then: How will I stand it?

“Yes, I am,” I said. Then I caught up to what he’d said a moment ago, and took a sharp breath. “Wait. You need how much? Five hundred thousand?”

“This seemed easier than robbing a bank. I figured you owed me.” His rage simmered below the surface, ready to boil over again, and his gun-hand twitched. “You still owe me.”

I said, “I have the money.”


“That’s what the Collector paid me for your soul,” I said. “I haven’t spent it. It’s in the car. You can have it.”

Again, Roscoe said, “Bullshit,” but with less conviction.

“I swear on her life.”

“Hey,” said Elena.

I saw the glimmer of Roscoe’s other side, a flicker of both the bird and the person I’d known, or thought I’d known.

“You’re serious.” His eyes were bright, suddenly, with a fearful hope.

“That will be it, then, though,” I said. “I can’t make up for the time I took from you. But you can’t come for me again, or for Elena.”

“If you’re telling the truth, I’ll make that deal,” said Roscoe. “But if you’re lying…”

“It’s in the lining of my bag,” I said. “In the front seat.”

“Get it,” he said to Elena, following behind her with the gun as she made her way back to the car. She pulled my beat-up leather satchel from the footwell and offered it to Roscoe with shaking hands. “Rip it open,” he said.

All I wanted was for him to lower that gun.

Elena struggled for a moment with the lining but then took her teeth to it and I heard the fabric give way, then heard the slap of bills as Roscoe made her count them. He was blocking my view of her face but her voice was steady and that calmed me. She counted the money once, twice, three times, and then Roscoe said, “I want your car. I’ll leave it at the airport in Duluth.”

“Okay,” Elena said, because he still had that gun, and what else could she say? She unloaded Rosa’s carseat and some bags and gave Roscoe her keys, and then he got behind the wheel, backed out of the dirt parking spot, and drove away. So unhesitating it made me dizzy. In a moment, the trees had closed him from our view.

Would I feel it, the moment he had his soul again? Would I know somehow?

The sun was sinking, the quality of the air changing, the cicadas beginning to sing their white noise to the cloudless sky. Elena said, “I better get that damn car back,” and her voice cracked. I turned to her, held her tightly. We were both shaking. After a while we went to sit on the front steps of the cabin, side by side. The air had started to smell like evening: gnats, cooling leaves, the moon.

“I’m so sorry you got brought into this,” I said.

“I wish you’d brought me in sooner. What the hell happened between you two?”

I told her. I cried while I spoke, and she held my hand, squeezing it now and again when my words faltered, or when I couldn’t catch my breath.

When I was done, she said, “That was a terrible thing you did to him.”

“I know.” There was more to say, and to ask, but we had time. For now, I felt oddly peaceful. The sky was turning pink.

“Don’t you want to know where I hid your soul?” she said eventually.

“Not yet,” I said. “I trust you to hide it better than I did.”

“Will you show me?” Elena said. “I mean, I’ve seen you change—but just twice, and both times from a distance, when you didn’t know I was watching. Will you show me right here?”

I pulled away to look her in the eye. “You really want to see that?”

“Of course I do!” she said. “I want to try and understand.”

In truth, I could already feel the change tugging at my bones, the stress of the day urging me skyward, into the bliss of a wordless mind, and I stood up. My body was already responding, skin tingling and heart staggering, and I took a couple eager steps out into the front yard, tensing to transform, longing for it. I rolled my shoulders. I readied myself.

“Wait,” said Elena, and I turned towards her, impatient. “You’re not going to change and fly away without saying goodbye, are you? You’ll come right back?”

For one brief, unforgivable moment, I hesitated. But then I said, “Of course I’ll be back.” She began to smile, and I said, “I want to meet your daughter.”

And I changed.


Emma Törzs

Emma Törzs is a writer and teacher based in Minneapolis. Her short fiction has been published in journals such as Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Lightspeed, and honored with a 2020 NEA fellowship, a 2019 World Fantasy Award, and a 2015 O. Henry Prize. She’s grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts, the Loft Literary Center, the Jerome Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the MRAC, the MSAB, and Norwescon for financial support through the years, and she’s an enthusiastic member of the Clarion West class of 2017. Her debut novel is forthcoming in 2023 with William Morrow.

One Response to “High in the Clean Blue Air”

  1. invisibot

    The ending for this one made me feel warm inside. 🙂

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