October 2017


by M.  Raoulee



I came here because—well, my parents never hurt me, but I needed to not be in their house anymore.  I tried to get into the Imperial Air Force after my last school term finished, but I showed up to the entrance exams with a hangover.  I almost passed.  Almost.   

As soon as I got turned away, the mercenary recruiters were falling over each other to talk to me.  I’d never had anything like that happen before.  I ended up taking the offer from the one who kissed my hand— like I was a prince! —even though the contract he offered me was for five years instead of three and I was only kind of sure who he worked for.  Besides, he said I could drink on the weekends if I wanted to.

I did.


The Duchy of Ballaseus has been at war with The United Interests of Laedon on and off for at least forty years.  It’s over some land in the plains that hasn’t been good for growing much besides grass since long before that.  Every so often, the Emperor makes them start peace talks, but Ballaseus never sticks to any treaty they come up with.

I work for the UIL, so all the news I get comes from their information control bureau.  It’s mostly propaganda about how hereditary ruling families can’t be trusted instead of anything useful.  I think I’m the only person on the airbase who cares why we’ve been hired to fight over what’s more or less a desert, but I still try to figure it out sometimes.

Nobody here was even born within UIL borders except the commander and Ada, the old woman who runs the repair crews.  Besides, it’s not as if we’ve managed to change much.  “We—that’s a dozen pilots, give or take.  It depends on how many of us have died in the past few weeks.


Our ace goes by Renny.  He’s tall and blond and smokes a lot, but he’s never cut in front of me in the cafeteria.  I think he kind of looks like an ace pilot, but then again, he’s the only one I’ve ever met.  He has ninety-nine confirmed kills and a couple of probables.  Since I’ve eaten dinner with him, I’d say he’s got over a hundred.  

There is one kind of strange thing about him.  He has a doll.  I don’t mean a kid’s doll, and I don’t mean something meant for lonesome people to take to bed.  I mean— did you ever see one of those fairy things women in the capital keep around? They never look like they should stay together, but they’re as smart as cats.  

Renny’s has glow-in-the-dark wings.  He calls her Vande, and she likes to cuddle his cheek while he’s talking to other people.  Once or twice, she’s decided to sit on stuff I was trying to read.  Renny mostly acts like she’s not there, but she’s always with him.  He must have figured out some way to fit her into his flight suit, because I’ve seen her hopping out of his helmet once he’s got it off.  

The commander never says anything, not even when she pokes him with her toes.  I guess he had to compromise between a ninety-nine dead Ballaseus pilots and blowing Vande away from his face.


Ada and I play tarot on the floor of the garage.  It smells of machine oil, but it’s out of the sun.  The way I’m used to playing, zero means twenty-two as far as the the numbers on the trumps go, but the way she does it, zero is called the Excuse and I can skip a turn with it.  I tend to forget that’s how her rules work until I’m about to do something stupid with another card.

I still win about half of the time.

Today, when I play a zero, Ada smiles at me and takes another trump from her hand.  “You like your Excuses, don’t you?” she says, not unkindly.

“Well,” I answer, “I have it, so there’s no point in holding onto it, I mean…” I trail off into my tumbler as I drink.  There’s actually not much to say past that: I drew a card, so I used it.

Ada puts her hand face-down in the shadow of her crossed legs.  “It makes playing with you interesting.  The other boys act like they’re afraid.”

I can imagine that.  It makes me flush, or maybe that’s the liquor.  “I like playing with you,” I murmur.

Next second, there’s a hand on my shoulder.  Ada never acted like she saw anybody behind me, and of course I didn’t realize myself.  I was thinking about Excuses, so now I’m drunk and looking up at the commander like I’m surprised to see him.

He glances down, and he nods.  I’m not the one he talks to, though.  “When you’re finished, I need to borrow him.”

Ada says, “Stay and watch how that works out.”

He does.  I win by two points.  All that really means is that the deck split pretty evenly.


The commander keeps a picture of his father on his desk, one of those really formal portraits where you can’t tell anything about the person except how many insignias they’ve got.  The old man stares out at the office while his son and I wait in silence.  Someone lands in the far east hanger.  The sound makes the windows rattle.

Renny joins us after a few minutes.  Vande curls up on his shoulder, her wings and her blue hair drifting down into the pocket of his shirt.  She peers out at the office, blinks, and puts her head back down.  

Once Renny’s in place, the commander says, “I want you to know I had no part in planning this offensive.”

“Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?” I say.  “We’re mercenaries.”

Renny nods.  He lights a cigarette.  

As for me, I should probably be pissed off that we’re leaving at midnight to take out some armory, but I’ve been on worse missions.  I’ve flown in the dark and with my engines coughing up smoke.  I’ve tangled with the pilots on the Ballaseus side.  Maybe I’ve only shot a handful down myself, but here I am, saying, “It’s really fine.  I can do this.”

“It’s rare to see you more enthusiastic than Renny,” remarks the commander.

Renny breathes a puff of smoke toward the ceiling.  “Do we get bonuses for enemy planes downed?”

“You do not.”

“Ch’.  I’m gonna go rest up anyway.  Just ‘cause I like you.”

I’m not sure if he’s talking to me or the commander or maybe even Vande.  At least, not until he uses me as a prop to push himself out of his chair.


My window leaks light until the sun goes down.  That just rubs it in, how long I’ve been lying here failing to sleep.  

I can hear a crew moving on the tarmac outside.  They’re already waiting for me.  So, I run over how I’ll do my pre-flight check.   It’s not that I don’t trust Ada and her people, but I’m the one who’ll be falling out of the sky if they missed anything.   My hand goes through the motion of testing the flaps even though I’m not at the controls.   It makes my head a little quieter, thinking through something I’ve done a hundred times before.    

Somebody knocks on my door, then comes in without me answering.

“Hey, Jahen,” says Renny.  He looks so out of place in my quarters since the heat doesn’t seem to have messed him up like it has me and the ceiling tiles on this side of the base.  He also puts Vande on one of my empty shelves without asking.  

I try to look at him, but end up rubbing my eyes instead.  “Ah, yeah?” I murmur.

“My five years are up.”

“That’s great.”

“They’ve been up since before you got here.”

I nod.  I’m not exactly awake.  I don’t know what to make of what he said.

Renny leans over my bed, his face as calm as a statue’s.  “I’m still here.”

“If it makes you happy, I guess that’s all right,” I try.  There are words coming out, but it feels like I’m failing to make any kind of point.

The quiet drags on between us after that.  Someone on the tarmac starts shouting.  I can’t make out what it’s about.  Then Renny says, “And I didn’t know you were a girl.” He glances away, but it doesn’t last that long; when he turns back, I think he’s trying to smile.

“Whatever.  It’s complicated,” I say.  Then—screw it—I reach for the vodka under my bed.  The first bottle comes up empty, so I grope for a second.

Renny’s hands catch in my hair.  “I don’t mind complicated.  I think it’s stupid if we go out half-cocked, that’s all.”

The second bottle’s still got a swig or two left.  I offer it to him, surprised when he drinks.  “I’m not crazy about girls,” he admits, the last of his swallow running down his chin.

“I said…”

“Yeah, and I’ll take your word for it.”

I know better.  I still put my mouth just under his lips, breathe in his scent all mixed up with my booze.  Whatever he offers me in return, he does that under Vande’s curious gaze.  It’s good, but it makes me want to sleep even more, here when I have to be awake at midnight.

We both end up staggering to Ada’s quarters, and we have to wake her to get some of the stimulants she keeps under her desk.  She doesn’t say anything about my shirt being inside out.  


It’s only the two of us heading out on this one.  I’ve never flown with just Renny before.  Maybe that’s what gave him a reason to show up in my room tonight.  

I think about all of the other missions he’s gone on with one or two other pilots, and that I’ll have to start checking the others for bites on their shoulders after the one he gave me.  

We’re supposed to be en route twelve and a half minutes if we stick with the flight plan.   Not that we have much choice this time around.  Orders are orders, and it’s not like we’ve got landmarks out here.

The clouds off my Corvax’s wings have more to them than anything underneath us.  The plains are so blank they might as well be poured concrete, but the clouds shift and break apart and pick threads of vapor off of one another.

Truth is, even if I had cities to spin past, the minutes would trickle by.  I’d still be caught up in waiting, the ETA readout jumping back and forth between twenty-one and twenty-two seconds past twelve minutes.   

I settle in a mile or two ahead of Renny.  After all the flight time I’ve got in, the thrum of the engines isn’t even static to me anymore.  All I can really hear is my own mathematics, that Renny’s been at the base for at least six years, and I wasn’t sure I’d last six months at first.  

I end up asking him, “Are you mad?” across the radio.

“Why would I be mad?” he answers.

“You didn’t get what you wanted.  Not what you were expecting, anyway.”

Renny sighs.  He could have waited to click on his radio so I couldn’t hear it.  He didn’t.  “Like you said, it’s complicated.”

In another instant, he’s streaked off past me.

I’d bet lot of people before me have seen his engines burn and fade away from them.  How many of them did I know and how many of them won’t be known ever again now that they’re gone? That I’ll probably never to add up, no matter how hard I try.


We fly nap-of-the-earth for our approach.  It’s awkward as hell in the dark with only the silhouettes on my goggles to go by.

Part of me comes up surprised that we find anything at the coordinates the commander gave us.  It isn’t that I don’t trust him, but we’re so far into nowhere it seems strange to find columns of metal looming in the grass.  All of my scopes flare bright white blinding, and I kill the night vision to look at the armory head-on in the moonlight.  

I wonder how long the towers have been here—there are no tracks, no roads.  It just looks like it fell here, though one of the towers has had time to rust.   

I wonder if I actually doubted the commander.  He’s never done us wrong before, though he’s sent rooms full of pilots off to die.

I wonder, but I fire my missiles anyway.  The trigger sticks like it has for the past couple of flights.  I’ll have to tell Ada after all, I guess.  

The horizon catches fire.  Renny and I sail back to the clouds, snagged on updrafts with the air shuddering underneath us.  For half a moment, I close my eyes, hoping all I’ll hear is my own engines.

I realized before I even left the commander’s office that hoping wasn’t going to do us much good.  The sky’s so bright, I don’t need the scope to see the five other jets waiting for us.  

They’re lower than we are— one could slice right through me at this angle, and it’d kill us both.  

“We need to split up!” I shout into the radio.  “I’ll take—” I blank.  Is it south or nine o’clock? Does it matter if nothing comes out of my mouth?

Renny dives straight towards them.  For a few seconds, I can still see him as I come around.  It looks like he might just topple from the angle he’s at, but he slides in behind the approaching jets.  There’s fire again— some of it close to where my tail was a moment ago.  One of the Ballaseus jets loses a wing and plummets out of the sky.

“That’s a hundred!” I yell.

Renny says: “Thanks.”

I can’t shoot from where I am, not yet, but someone else does.  They miss.  I still shudder.  I think about what it would take them to get them to chase me, but what then? I won’t hit anybody if I can’t even out for just two seconds.

Renny’s jet skips over mine, a black shadow against the stars.  I bank to follow.  I try to tell him I’m heading in lower, and he tries to tell me… I can’t hear it.  My heart clangs.  So does something in my cockpit or barely outside.  

A Ballaseus jet hurdles my way.  I can’t fire fast enough, drop quick enough before the Crovax lurches.  The instrument panel goes red.  I pull up.   Nothing happens.

I’m not flying back.

The damn thing is, even though I only wanted in the Imperial Air Force at first because the academy is on the other side of the empire from where I grew up, I like flying pretty well.  Combat can rot, though.

The ejection seat hesitates for one awful second.  My fingers go cold.  There’s a bang, and then all I can hear is the rush of air closing around me as I fall.

Don’t let them shoot my parachute, I think.

In the distance, the last of the enemy jets cracks into Renny’s right wing.  He goes down.  I don’t see his parachute, though I lie in the grass waiting for a long, long while until the sky washes up empty again.  Then, I start walking.


I find Vande curled up beside what’s left of Renny’s face.  They shot him right through the cockpit glass.

I’m alone, and it’s dark and damn everything— everything, just… everything.  I’ve never been alone, really alone, before in my life.

And Renny’s dead.

Kneeling there in the wreckage, I realize I’m only thinking of myself.  He’s dead, and I’m scared of being by myself.

I wrap my arms around myself and I wail.

It’s not like anyone can hear me crying.

I cry harder, knowing that.  


I can’t remember the last time I broke down like this.  It couldn’t have been at home, since I wasn’t allowed to there.  I got to be a boy, or I got to cry.  Boys from decent families didn’t cry, and I was going to be decent if it killed me.  Then the liquor cabinet got left unlocked, and there was my Excuse, the thing that got me stranded out here in the dark, by and by and years later.

Renny probably had his Excuse too.   I don’t know how or if he played it.   Ada might have been talking about him yesterday.   It could have just as easily been somebody I never met.   But, Renny, I keep coming back to him and it’s just— what the hell kind of life did he lead where it mattered to him that he slept with his mission partners? If that’s what he was doing.   I can’t ask him that now, or why he didn’t just leave before this could happen.  

Somewhere in the next sob, I realize this crash might be exactly what he wanted.  

I feel something crawling against me.  I look down, and there’s Vande, tugging at me with her bloody little hands.  She’s not in bad shape.  One of her wings is torn, and there’s ash in her joints along with a couple threads of Renny’s blond hair.  I pick her over kind of clumsily.  It’s been awhile since I held a doll.

Halfway through, I realize it’s dawn and my throat’s raw and my legs are stiff.  I try to stand anyway.  Vande hangs onto my clothes, then climbs up onto my shoulder.   She used to sit on Renny’s left, but with me she wants the right.   This way around puts her damaged wing on the inside.

“That’s awful smart,” I tell her, though part of me doesn’t quite believe I’m talking to a doll.

I think about pushing her away, up until the moment she starts trying to wipe the snot off of my face.  So I don’t.  I just start crying again.


Morning passes.  Around noon, I pull back the top of my flight suit and try to convince myself I’m sunning instead of watching the bruises come in.  I talk to Vande, ask her to be patient, say it won’t be long— little things like that.  

There’s not a sound out in the grass besides my voice and the creaking as the wreckage of Renny’s plane settles into the ground.  By now we’ve been gone twelve hours.  No one’s come for us.

They’re not going to, either.  That was never part of the deal.  I’d just started thinking that maybe, if Renny didn’t make it back, somebody else whose door he’d knocked on…

Now I’m imagining a bunch of mercenaries breaking their contracts to rescue the guy they all slept with.  That thought settles in clearer than I want it to.  I end up with my head on my knees, hand on my stomach, inching down.  I guess my body’s that desperate to feel something else.  

“It’s really stupid,” I mutter.

Vande nods.  

I tip my head her way.  “Nobody checked to make sure I wasn’t dead.”

It takes a second after that to realize the jab I just got is her pressing against my neck to check my pulse.  It really hurts.  I have to pull her off, which means she also gets a good look at my tears.  “I want to go home,” I say.  

Vande pulls her ripped wing over herself.   The pigment suspended in it brightens under her hand.   She draws one line and then another with this precision I’m not sure I could match with a guide.   I recognize part of a stretch of the UIL border before I do the compass rose that she tilts into place against the last angle of setting sun.

“Why do you have a film screen?” I ask.  “You’re a toy.”

She shrugs and holds the map out to me.

I know I can’t stay here with what used to be Renny.  Part of me wants to, just like part of me’s still back at the thought of anybody at the base missing him enough that just maybe I’d get rescued in his place.

I’m not enough of a romantic to really believe that in the end.   Besides, I should have left this place hours ago.

I start walking.


The map changes color as I move across the grass, faint shifts in the glistening green.  I focus on  that instead of where my feet end up.  I mean, it’s just me and—us and the plains.  As long as I keep half an eye on the ground, I don’t trip too much.

The bugs out here are awful big.  There’s a couple of leggy kinds I have to keep brushing off of my clothes.  Wings dart in and out of my flashlight beam, and there’s this steady, soft-pitched drone in every crack of the night.  It’s almost like being back in my Corvax except the breeze keeps nudging me and when I reach my hand out to test the flaps, there’s no switch for my hand to rest on.   I get this weird sense of weightlessness without it.   

The moon seems so small down here on the ground too.  Before, I felt like I could have held it in my hands, but now, if it really was a thing I could reach out and touch I think it would slip through my fingers.

Around midnight or lunar apogee, whichever comes around when I almost have shadows in the moonlight, I see a furry tail disappear down a hole in the rusted out half of an old fuselage.   I hold Vande aside for a better look at what turns out to be an older model of my Corvax.   It’s covered in lichen and leggy things.   The rust makes it smell like sweat.

“Just like me,” I say, picking one more bug out of my hair.  I lean against the Corvax while I try to eat one of my ration bars.  I get about half of a cherry one down before food stops appealing to me, then it’s back to walking.   

I do look back, just once and I swear there’s a flicker of firefly green passing there, although it might just be the eyes of whatever lives in her guts now.   


My feet have been hurting for a while before morning comes.  It’s not until I realize my toes are wet that I stop.  My boots mustn’t be made for walking.  The dew stings against the cracks in my skin, though it’s not as bad as the disinfectant.  I prop my feet up so I can dry off without using any of my clean gauze, and when I reach for the bandages, Vande helps me get them wrapped.

“I wonder what else you know.”

She stares back at me.  

I ask the first question that comes to mind: “Hey, what’s the highest trump in Tarot?”

Vande makes a zero with her hand.

“I knew I was right.” There’s nobody to set straight about that out here in the plains, but that also means there’s no one to watch me nod off in the grass.


I wake up sometime after dusk.  At first, I think I must have fallen asleep in the cockpit because of the animal trills that run through the last threads of daylight.  Then, Vande kisses me on the end of the nose.  

I didn’t realize her lips even moved that way.  When she tries to pull away, I put my thumb on her mouth and tug it open just a little.  

She has teeth.  They look like they belong in those fish they dredge up from the dark parts of the ocean.  

I laugh, just a little.  What else do I do in response to that?

I wouldn’t even say it feels good.   It’s just there in my chest and I actually get a little bit of a rush between breaths.  I stretch and flop backwards.   My shoulderblades land on a rise in the ground.  There’s this clang.   I feel it more than hear it.   I roll over and I put my fist down hard..   It happens again.   

I end up digging down in the grass.  Handfuls of it come up, then turns into mud from last year, and finally black soot.  

I’ve been sitting on another fuselage.  I can’t even tell how old this one is.  The principality insignia, if that’s what it is, doesn’t make any sense to me.  When I come around to the windows, they’re mostly intact.  So are the pilot’s bones, even the really little ones.  Then again, they all seem kind of small without any skin.

Finding them doesn’t have the sharp edges of Renny’s death, but I still choke back a few tears.

Vande rapping on the window doesn’t change anything.  Nothing budges.  The skull we can see is still empty.  I’m just making noise alongside her until then my knuckles twinge.

I rub them, and I whisper, “At least Renny’s not alone out here.”

Vande nods.  She climbs up on my shoulder, shoving her wing in my face, and I start off in the direction of the bluer green.  I imagine her sinking her teeth into my ear.  Then I remember I’ve been half a hand away from missiles.   Let her bite me.   I’ve already gotten into worse than that.   


Now that I’ve slept, I can think a little clearer.  At first, it’s mostly about how my feet hurt, but I can ride that out.  Vande stirs against me off and on, when I get too far gone in my head.  Once, she even sticks her little hand in the corner of my eye.  Whatever she’s made of, it doesn’t make me flinch.  I mean, she’s almost skin-warm.  

I told her I wanted to go home.  She has no way of knowing where my home was, or that I’m not welcome there.  Only the commander knows where I’m from, or was from, or something like that.  Vande’s only read my news clippings and maybe a comic or two.   

Home would be the base, then.  Except, the more I look at them, the more I realize the directions shining on her wing don’t lead that way.  We’re walking along the border, not towards it.

She makes a sound that reminds me of the leggy insects breaking away, but it’s got to be some servo shifting inside of her.  It pitches up like she’s asking a question.

“I’m kind of thirsty,” I tell her.  “Too bad there’s nothing out here to drink.  You know, like the other kind of drink.”

There’s not much she can do about that one.  


I start to pay attention to the sound my footsteps make.  Sometimes, when Vande pokes me, I get this sense I’m standing on air right before or right after.  The space beneath me stops seeming like it’s got any real substance.   

It does seem like space instead of ground.

The same thing, the part where the bottom dropped out of my stomach, happened before.   Last night it ran together with the headache I gave myself bawling.  Now, I walk for a while longer, half tense on the thought of next time.  There absolutely is a next time.

I tell Vande I’m resting.  I scuff up the grass.  I find a scrap of metal and some rivets.  

After that, there’s no reason to hide it.  I kick at the rises in the ground, and I rip at the ones that even kind of ring.  I find more wings, arcs of cockpit glass.  Once, there’s a bayonet.  A couple times, just stones and fireflies at the edge of my vision.  The mica in the soil sticks to my fingernails.  I kind of don’t want to get that on Vande, but the one time I shy away from touching her, she slams against my hand and hangs on even after I try to pull away.

“How many times…” I swallow, working sideways through the words one more time before I ask them.  “How many times did Renny crash here?”

Zero, she signs.

“All right.”  Well, it has to be all right.  I can’t change that answer, although it does end the explanation I’d been working on, something about her having been here before.  “This place is a graveyard.  You know that, right?”

She nods.  This time, when she shows me her teeth, it’s on purpose.

Again, I tell myself I’ve seen worse.  “So, how many times have you crashed here?”

Next instant, she’s gone, rolled right off of my shoulder.   I crouch down beside her and I wait while she stares up at the sky.   Finally, she shakes her head and climbs back into place.


I have two choices: I can head back to the base, or I can follow Vande.  I don’t sleep as well the second day, trying to work out what I want.   

I could make it somewhere on my own.  Somewhere could be anywhere as long as I stayed alone.

“Anywhere”, that’s too enormous for me to handle without vodka.  At this point though, I’d settle for a card game, or even just somebody else’s voice.   Actually, a card game sounds really nice.   That’s what I think about before I do manage to drift off, at least for a while in the afternoon.


When I wake up, Vande and I have nothing to say.  I try to imagine myself telling her I’m going on without her.  I know that I won’t.  She sits beside me, thin and ragged-looking in the last of the afternoon.

I move to stand, but her hand brushes against mine.  I’m thankful it’s not her teeth.  In the same heartbeat, part of me still knows where we’ll be headed after this.  

I lean back.  I watch the sky fading into evening as the insect song rises around us.

“Really,” I say.  “Zero? After all this time, nothing isn’t even an excuse.”

Vande looks at me, long and hard.

“I know, I keep coming back to that, it’s just…”

She turns away, sudden enough the grass tangles in her hair.  I hear this tiny click.  Half of her chest swings sideways along the shadow of her arm.

I hadn’t realized she’s got film screens for wings.  Of course I never saw her open up, literally like she does, though she’s all closed again by the time she comes back.

The cards Vande offers me are hardly larger than my thumbnail and thin as moth wings besides.  They cling to my sweaty fingertips, but that way I can brush them onto my palm and hide my hand that way.

We play tarot.

“I want to go back to the base and see Ada,” I say.  For the first trick, I play six and Vande claims it with an eighteen.

She says nothing.  

“I should go back to the base.” I don’t have much to go on after that, not in my own mind, and not with my cards.  I put down a one, and I guess it’s almost a favor to me if she uses a five to make it her own.

I don’t mean to leave her waiting after, but I spend this long moment torn between what I’ve got in my hand at that point and what I need to ask her.

So, I ask everything.  Why are you here? What are you for? Why me and not somebody else? In between, Vande takes every trick and there’s nothing, there’s just nothing I can do to win by the time she’s finished.

I should concede.  I don’t.

“Where are we going? Just tell me.  It’s okay.  I promise I’m not angry.”

I play two cards this round, twenty-one and an Excuse.  It’s not to the rules, but I have no other way to show her what I’ve been holding onto.  

The wind goes still against her silence.  Eventually, she takes the Excuse and bites off the corner.  Though she doesn’t swallow, she looks me square in the face after.  Her words rise against the dusk.  I can almost feel them on my skin.

“Good dolls die with their masters.  All I did was break.”

“We could find somebody to fix you,” I say.  

We? I can’t go back, not after this.  All of the others…”

I start.

She puts the rest of her hand down, twenty on top of a smattering of wands and other numbers I can’t read.

I consider.  I drink from my water bottle, pretending it might just get me lit.  I put the rest of the zero and a nibble of grass in my mouth.

Vande watches as I retch an instant later.  What comes out of me is full of blood and what looks like mica.  

I think I must be dead, or maybe dying back in the wreck of my Corvax.  If I’m dreaming of Vande before I wink out, well, people dream of strange things at the ends of their lives.   Hell, people dream of strange things anyway.

I take my own pulse this time.   It’s thready, but it’s there.  

I guess I’m still alive.   No.   I know.   One more time, I pick myself up.

Vande sits on my right hand now as we walk.  

“If you forgive me,” she says, “can you forgive a hundred old women just like me?”

“I like old ladies,” I tell her and wipe the last smear of blood from the corner of my mouth.  “They remind me of my grandma, and she won’t talk to me, so…”

After all these years, it still hurts to say that.  Then again, I’m not sure I ever have  before.  Not out loud, anyway.

A thousand singing insects take flight away from me.  The plains stir and crack and moan.  Bones bones spill from remnants of the planes I haven’t turned over myself, but that only lasts as long as a hand of cards.  The sky, not yet dark, goes up in blue-green wings as far as I can make out.

“It’s… really okay,” I say to Vande, though it’s a little for myself besides.  “I’m here.” I lift my arms out and I try to smile.

The first doll wraps herself around my fingers and she does bite, just a little, before cuddling into place in the cradle of my palm.    

Overhead, I see two squadrons of jets.  One flies West and one East.  I doubt they can tell just how full of light it is down here.