art & g.narrative
fiction & poetry
art &
fiction & poetry
interview & article
current html | pdf
vol vii, issue 2 < ToC
You Will Be Better
Alexandra Grunberg
previous next

Crackle BallBlood River
You Will Be Better
Alexandra Grunberg

Crackle Ball


Blood River
You Will Be Better
Alexandra Grunberg
previous next

Crackle Ball Blood River

Crackle Ball


Blood River
You Will Be Better
 by Alexandra Grunberg
You Will Be Better
 by Alexandra Grunberg
Azealia did not know why her mother made such a big deal about her travelling in a ‘horseless carriage’ until she saw the monstrosity parked on the road in front of their house. It loomed, an indistinct but hulking shadow in the sick grey light of the early morning. Thick black smoke rose from the rear of the vehicle, accompanied by a rhythmic panting sound, like the carriage was a horse itself, over-exerted and quite sick. Azealia preferred the carriages she transported her sisters in when they travelled across the countryside.

A man in a coat the same colour as the soot that stained it at cuffs and collar gently helped her into the space within, leaving black smudges on her pale pink gloves. It was like being fed into the mouth of a dying creature, the inside not wet but as hot as fevered breath. She could have believed the man’s hand had trembled because he was afraid of Azealia’s fate once she entered the claustrophobic interior. But from the way he nearly ran to the front of the carriage, turning too much attention to various levers and wheels that clicked and spun nimbly under his attentions, she knew that the truth was he was afraid of her.

Her mother’s face peered in through the glass window of the carriage’s shut door, eyes as wide as they were when she caught Azealia and her sisters returning from one of the little trips.

“It’s going to be better,” she said. Azealia nodded, though it seemed like her mother was trying to reassure herself more than her daughter. “The School will make you better.”

Azealia did not wave to her mother as the carriage’s panting grew in intensity and it began to rumble away, leaving a billowing trail of thick smoke behind them. It obscured the last views she could have had of the place she had lived in for the entire fifteen years of her life. She did not have any strong feelings for the towering building that always seemed too small with so many girls running up and down the great staircases. She did not wish for the smoke to clear to see if any of her sisters had realized she was gone and were perhaps peeking out of their windows at the strange creature that was carting her away. But she could clearly see the trees that lined the road away from her home, gnarled with twisted branches that made perfect steps and handholds to carry her to new heights. She knew the best trees, and they knew her.

Azealia thought her crying had been silent until the man passed back a soot-stained handkerchief to her. She wiped her tear-stained cheeks with it, feeling the grit stick to her skin.

“What’s yer name, kitten?” asked the man.

“Azealia,” she sniffled. “Azealia Penn. And you?”

“Carver,” he said, though she could not tell if that was his fore or surname.

“Pleased to meet you,” she whispered.

Carver twitched in his seat. She wondered if she sounded different than other girls. Girls who did not have their own hidden wrongness. If she did, she could not hear it.

“The city is a marvellous place,” said Carver. “You could see somethin’ new every day. And interestin’ people are always arrivin’, full o’ stories to tell.”

Azealia tried to think of herself as an interesting person. She felt small and dirty.

“Do you live in the city?” she asked.

“My ’ole life,” said Carver, nodding.

“Do you like it?”

The man brought the carriage to a halt as several cows crossed the road, the sound of their lowing almost completely covered by the coughs and sputters as the carriage released an even thicker plume of smoke into the air.

“You get used to it,” he said.

*     *     *
Azealia used to think her house was tall. It was taller than most of the trees. But it would have been dwarfed under the gaze of the glass-lined towers that rose on either side of the road, displaying the people running around within the floors she could see, promising hundreds more on the levels that soared above her head.

The transition to the city was sudden. They crossed under a tunnel, a tunnel that Carver helpfully and frightfully informed her carried them beneath a great lake, and then emerged into the light and the bustle. There were many carriages like their own, all belching their black smoke, the same kind of smoke that rose from the tops of several of the buildings. She was surprised she could still see the sun barely cutting through the streaming swirls. She shuddered to imagine what it would be like to walk outside here when it rained.

“What causes all that smoke?”

Carver laughed until he realized she was serious.

“It’s the coal burnin’,” he said. “Surely you ’ave a coal oven at ’ome?”

“This city surely isn’t run on one little coal oven,” she said and did not understand why Carver laughed again. “How does this all work?”

Carver went into a long explanation, the words familiar, the order unfamiliar. She knew coal, she knew it burned, she knew that somehow it created the energy that lit up the world around them, but when he tried to explain in detail his voice turned to an incomprehensible drone. It was all so much more complicated than it had to be. But, looking out the window, she had to admit that the results were wondrous.

She had a television at home but had never seen those same advertisements displayed in billboards that covered entire blocks and were sometimes reflected right onto the smoke in the sky. She had her own personal sonic that could stream bands as they played from their distant concerts, but she had never seen the concerts themselves, live performances on every corner broadcasting across oceans and continents. The songs blended in a cacophony that she could neither tune out nor tune in to. She did not notice her favourite band, four sisters who shared the same artificially red hair like poisoned apples from a witch-centred fairy tale, until the carriage was already turning the corner away from them, leaving their wild crooning behind.

Everything here was bigger, more real. She felt like, until that moment, she had only been exposed to the shadows of life. The glare of the sun on glass made her clasp her hands over her eyes, smudging her face further, but comforting her in the darkness.

Azealia heard the engine cough before they shuddered to a stop. She dropped her hands from her eyes as Carver opened the door of the carriage.

“Is this the School?” she asked, panic rising in her throat. “Is this where I’m going to live?”

There were people squished together outside and inside the building, not just young girls, but grown women, men, families, workers. It looked like a jail, one that could not contain its inhabitants. They must have been too dangerous to control. Like her.

Carver chuckled before the lump in Azealia’s throat could press out tears.

“This is just a teashop,” said Carver. “We ’ave a bit o’ a ways to go on our journey. I thought you might like somethin’ to eat.”

Azealia’s stomach rumbled louder than the panting carriage.

*     *     *
They squeezed inside, the bulk of Carver’s body acting as a kind of protective forcefield around Azealia, though he tried to keep space between them. When she tripped on the lip of the door and gripped his arm for balance, she felt the man flinch. But before she could apologize, Carver began to laugh, and his booming voice echoed through a room already filled with the conversations, arguments, and gossip of the groups squished around tables inside.

“Davey, m’boy!” Carver shouted.

A thin boy looked up from where he hunched over a cup of tea and did not seem entirely pleased to see Carver. If Carver noticed, he did not let on, and guided Azealia to the table where Davey sat.

“I see you’ve brought another freak for the School,” said Davey with a nod toward Azealia.

He looked about her age, though he was much thinner and shorter than she was. Sandy hair escaped a loose knot at the base of his neck, trailing to a soot-stained shirt. She was distracted by the image stitched on its front. It was a black and yellow lamp similar to the ones that hung from the ceiling of the shop, though the iron of the lamps above her was wrought into twisting fantastic designs, while the one on his shirt was all straight, hard lines. There was no logo on it or advertisement, but it seemed too stern to be a strictly creative choice. Fairly boring, poor artistry, and for some reason that last realization filled her with dread. She was so busy puzzling that she did not catch Davey’s use of the word freak until Carver had already started talking.

“Azealia is startin’ up at the School,” said Carver, waving down a waitress with deep bags under her eyes and hair as greasy as her apron. “Davey works there when ’e can, does odd jobs for the Headmistress, repairs and such.”

“You’re one of her servants, then?” asked Azealia.

She had no real disdain for servants, but she felt cheered by the way Davey’s face twisted before he responded.

“I do maintenance-”

“A pot of Earl Grey, please,” Azealia smiled at the waitress, silencing Davey, who glowered and shrugged lower in his seat.

“Black coffee,” said Carver, and the waitress nodded before weaving to the back of the shop. As she slammed a door that must have led to the kitchen behind her, Azealia saw a crack grow in the wall behind a group of women, possibly nursemaids with their wards. A thin line of smoke swirled out of it. “It’ll be nice to ’ave a friendly face when you arrive, right Azealia?”

As the women laughed over prams that seemed too large to have fit through the front door, the crack grew longer, wider. Azealia frowned.

“You one o’ those ones gets feelin’s?” asked Davey, curiosity softening some of his natural leer. “There’s a girl there now like that. She ’elped me win a fiver at the races.”

“I’m sure she doesn’t ’elp you like that anymore, though,” said Carver, and Davey nodded to agree.

“No, no feelings for me,” said Azealia, shaking her head. “I ...”

She realized that both Carver and Davey were sitting straight up, stiff, as they listened. They were afraid of her. It should have bothered her more. It definitely should not have helped soothe the dread she felt or made her blush with a strange sense of pride.

“If all goes well, you’ll never know why she’s even ’ere,” said Carver.

Azealia did not think she would be forced to contain herself all the time at the School, just more than she could manage at home without professional help. But Carver looked very sure, and Davey looked very smug, and she was not relishing the way their relief made her feel smaller.

“Is it okay if I stretch my legs for a bit?” she asked. “They’re still rather cramped from the trip.”

“Sure, sure,” nodded Carver. “I’ll give a shout when the tea’s set.”

Azealia nodded her appreciation, though she doubted the other patrons would appreciate Carver’s voice interrupting their tea. Though, maybe they did not notice. No one even looked up when Azealia inevitably bumped into them as she walked by, making her way to the back of the room, to the crack in the wall. One man even spilled some of his tea on his suit, but he did not acknowledge Azealia’s whispered apology. Azealia felt bad, though she supposed the brown stain was barely visibly against the layer of soot that dusted the man, from the tip of his top hat to the shoes he tapped anxiously on the grimy floor.

None of the women seemed to notice the crack in the wall, all invested in their conversation or quieting the little ones in their prams, who seemed as distressed by their surroundings as Azealia felt. She hovered by the edge of the group and wondered if she should warn one of them about the crack, if they did not notice. If it was even something to worry about. Maybe it happened all the time. As she deliberated, her gaze was drawn to one of the soft, round faces in their pram, the only baby who was not crying or babbling their upset and confusion. Two large brown eyes, as dark as her own, stared up at her.

“She likes you,” said the woman sitting closest to the pram, wrapped in a sickly yellow shawl.

“She’s beautiful,” said Azealia. “Is she ... Are you her nurse or-”

“I’m her mother,” said the woman.

Her voice was sharp. Azealia blushed. The woman sitting next to the mother, tall with long black hair done in a French braid that rested over her shoulder, smiled.

“With the coal price increase, we all had to fire the superfluous help,” she said.

“I would have said Nanny Rae was necessary staff, but the old man sure deemed her superfluous,” said a curly haired woman at the far side of the table with an especially rowdy babe.

Everyone in the group laughed and nodded their agreement, and the mother softened in the shared discomfort of her friends.

“You think they could come up with a solution for the coal problem,” she said, tightening the shawl around her shoulders.

“They don’t want a solution,” said the curly haired woman. “They want us to keep paying for the coal.”

“Are you and Davey courting?” asked the woman with the black braid.

Her attention had never left Azealia. She smiled at her like the two shared a secret.

“Perhaps you’re already thinking of your own babe and pram,” teased the mother.

The women giggled as Azealia grew red.

“No, no, I just met him,” Azealia stuttered. “I just arrived here, and he works ... well, I’m here because-”

“You’re going to the School?” asked the black-haired woman.

Her eyes flashed with something that was not the fear Azealia felt travel through several of the women at the table. Her cheeks went red, though did not seem embarrassed. She seemed angry.

“That’s okay,” said the curly haired woman. “It ... The School makes you better. It made me better.”

“You were sent there, too?” asked Azealia.

“Many of us were students at the School,” said the black-haired woman. “More than you’d think. More than anyone in this city would care to think about.”

“Hush now, Ellen,” said the mother, swatting the woman with her shawl.

“Did you like it?” asked Azealia, sure she should not ask questions, unable to stop herself.

“I wouldn’t have the life I do now without the education I received,” said the curly haired woman, smiling into her pram. “It’s necessary. Don’t you want a family someday? A baby of your own?”

Azealia was not sure if she really wanted a babe for herself. She was not sure what other options there were. But she did notice that the black-haired woman, Ellen, did not seem to have a pram to watch over.

“Did you like the School?” Azealia asked, taking care to direct her question to Ellen.

Before the woman could respond, the waitress entered the room, balancing a tea tray in one hand, before she slammed the door shut behind her.

The crack widened and with a harsh breaking and tearing sound, the wall began to fall towards them, releasing soot and smoke and a wave of heat.

Several of the women screamed. The mother threw her body over the pram, but Azealia could see the smoke wafting through the gaps in her shawl, the bend of her waist, filling the space that housed the babe. Tears sprung from Azealia’s eyes as ash burned her lashes. The waitress dropped the tea tray, and the already-chipped cups and pot broke into shards at her feet as she tossed her apron over her face. In the midst of the chaos, as patrons began to scream behind them, pushing each other to flee the small shop, Ellen stood up, her face calm. She lifted her hand and turned it, slightly. A gesture of dismissal. Like she had judged the scene in front of her, deemed it below her standards, and expected it to retreat from her presence.

And it did.

The smoke had only been filling the room for a moment, a few seconds at most, and at the twist of Ellen’s hand it retreated backwards into the wall. The wall itself reset to its former, semi-straight position, and the crack decreased in size to an eyesore, instead of a danger. The pot and cups on the ground found themselves back together on the tray, which in turn found itself back balancing on the now baffled waitress’s hand. The crowd that had begun to stampede were now sitting in their seats with expressions that ranged from dazed to frightened.

Azealia had seen women who had feelings before, who knew when a disaster was coming. But she had never seen anyone do what Ellen had done. It was nothing like anything Azealia herself had done. It was fascinating, but most importantly, it meant that Ellen had gone to the School, and it had not made her better.

Before Azealia could say anything more to Ellen, Carver had grabbed her arm and was pulling her towards the exit.

*     *     *
Azealia entered the dark building, smelling like vinegar from the fish and chips Carver bought them at a drive through. Rain dropped in hard rhythms on the roof and Carver rushed to finish bringing in her luggage. Though lamps lit the small room, lamps built on harsh lines like the picture on Davey’s shirt, the air was tinged with darkness, like the inside of the building housed its own personal raincloud.

“You must be Azealia.”

The woman’s voice was high and breathy, and when Azealia turned she expected it to be coming to her from some distance away, so she was surprised that the woman who spoke was already by her shoulder, peering down at her from an almost unbelievable height. Azealia stumbled a curtsy, but the woman’s face did not falter, remaining impeccably neutral. Azealia suppressed a strange urge to spit in her face, just to see if she would react. She suspected that the woman would not.

“Nice to meet you m’am,” murmured Azealia, and the woman nodded her approval.

“Headmistress Willoughby,” said the woman. “I trust you found the School without issue?”

Azealia nodded. They had to drive through the city, across another river (over it, on a real bridge this time, to Azealia’s relief), and up a hill where the School sat like a monument to some ancient, unending war. Azealia’s family home was much more isolated, but after the claustrophobic atmosphere of the city, the solitary building felt terribly lonely in its quiet, dark glow.

“Carver knew the way,” said Azealia.

She looked behind her, to a pile of her luggage, a shut door, and the sound of the gasping and huffing of the carriage disappearing. She told herself that she did not even know Carver, not really. There was no reason to feel such a loss at him leaving without saying goodbye.

“Men do not like to linger here,” said the Headmistress. Down the hall, another door swung open, and Azealia leaned around the woman to see a handsome man dressed in all black hurry down a hallway, not looking up from his feet. The Headmistress’s expression faltered, but only for a moment, before she ran her hand across her lips, smoothing her expression. “Most men do not linger here.”

A group of girls in dresses that Azealia supposed were white a long time ago but had turned a sickly grey ran inside. They jolted to a halt when they saw the Headmistress and sunk into clumsy curtsies.

“She’s new,” said one of the girls.

“How very astute, Sydney,” said the Headmistress. “Why don’t you help her bring her things to her room? You two are dismissed.”

The two girls ran up a staircase formed of heavy, dark wood, leaving Sydney below them, frowning at the pile Carver left for them.

“But she’s on the fourth floor,” said Sydney, fists planted on her hips.

“Surely there are servants who can help?” asked Azealia.

“Helping yourself builds character,” said the Headmistress. “The two of you working together will have everything tidied away in no time.”

“It would be much easier if I could just ...” Azealia trailed off as the Headmistress frowned, her eyebrows two sharp lines like dark cracks across her forehead. Azealia’s gaze dropped to the floor. “I only meant ... I just got here, you all already know, and it wouldn’t hurt anyone-”

She did not see the Headmistress’s hand move. The pain that burst on her cheek seemed to come from nowhere. But though she had never been slapped before, Azealia knew what had happened. She was too stunned to cry.

*     *     *
“Never offer to help,” said Sydney.

It was their final trip up the stairs, carting the last of Azealia’s luggage. Sydney plopped down on Azealia’s bed. Azealia leaned against one of her cases.

“My mom said the School was going to make me better,” said Azealia. “I didn’t think anyone would expect perfect. I mean, I can’t turn it off completely. That would be like turning off my sight.”

“You mean closing your eyes?” asked Sydney.

“No,” huffed Azealia. “Maybe more like ... learning how not to walk.”

“We’re not walking right now.”

“Never mind! You don’t understand.”

“The girls in this School are probably the only ones who understand,” said Sydney, sitting up. “If they tell you that you’re not allowed to see, close your eyes. If they tell you that you’re not allowed to walk, sit down. If they tell you that you’re not allowed to breathe, hold your breath until you faint. And if they tell you that you’re not allowed to help, even if it would make things a lot easier if you did, then you don’t help.”

Azealia wiped her hand on her skirt. The soot had mixed with the rain as it landed on her luggage, and the combination had formed a thin black paste that coated everything they had to cart to her room.

“What if I don’t know how to turn it off?”

“None of us knew how,” said Sydney. “That’s why you’re here. I can help you unpack if you’d like. I’m supposed to be cleaning out the kitchen, but if I’m helping you then they won’t make me.”

It took much less time to unpack than it did to organize all her life into transportable compartments. The closet was small, but it fit all the dresses she decided she liked enough to keep. A part of her regretted bringing the ones she liked. She could imagine the rejected garments hanging in her closet at home, perhaps gathering dust, but a much cleaner kind of dust than what they had here.

“You’ll get your uniform dress tomorrow,” said Sydney. “Think of it like an apron. Or armour.”

They finished folding her t-shirts and jeans for the weekends into the drawers of a dresser that doubled as a side table, stacked paper and ink on the desk in the corner, and lay the woven blanket on top of the drab grey bedspread. Azealia and Sydney sat down on the edge of the twin bed, looking out the single window in her room, watching the rain fall in an opaque curtain. There were several other rooms on this top floor, and though Azealia could not tell from their stark closed doors if any were occupied, she thought she could hear the muffled sound of crying from behind one of the walls.

“Are you better now?” asked Azealia, and Sydney shifted her gaze away from the rain. “I mean, obviously you’re not perfect or you would have graduated. But ... is it better here?”

Sydney shrugged.

“Better in some ways. Growing up, my parents were sure I was a boy, no matter how much I tried to tell them that they were wrong. They didn’t believe me until the issues started.” Azealia nodded. Only girls had to deal with these issues, the wrongness. Boys did not need to be sent anywhere to be made better when there was nothing that made them wrong to begin with. Sydney was a girl, no matter what her family had once assumed. “Nobody here questioned what I already knew.”

“Makes the issues seem more like a blessing, then,” Azealia proposed.

Sydney laughed.

“It mostly felt like they only recognized me as a girl when they had a clear way to punish me for being one,” said Sydney. “But there were a few nice days before they shipped me out. I went on a hunting trip with Dad that I actually enjoyed. I had good feelings about where to lead the group. I think he was a little pissed when Mom made plans for me to come to the School.”

Azealia remembered when she slipped up in front of her father, the moment he knew. The moment he started screaming. He did not complain when her mother decided to send her away. He had not been in the same room with her since he found her out.

“You won’t be much help to him on your hunting trips after you graduate,” said Azealia, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice, sure from the way Sydney raised an eyebrow that she had not completely succeeded. “I mean, if the teachers here actually help you-”

“The teachers aren’t here to help you,” said Sydney. “Everyone here wants to fix you. They’re going to make you into something else because they can’t stand what you are. No one can. Don’t think of them as people who can help. Don’t trust them when they say they want to help. Don’t give them anything you don’t want them to take away. Your smile. Your kindness. Whatever you want to keep, keep it close and quiet.”


“I think the Headmistress has already shown you her brand of help,” said Sydney, and Azealia’s cheek burned again. “But she’s not the worst one here.”

Azealia thought of that man in black and shivered, though she was not sure why.

“If everyone here wants to fix me, does that include you?” said Azealia. “Would it be better if I wasn’t friends with you?”

Sydney flashed a smile.

“Definitely don’t be friends with me if you want to get better,” she said, and it sounded like a joke, but Azealia did not get it.

*     *     *
Azealia thought there would be lessons. She thought they might have classes on control, or meditations on mindfulness, something her mother went on and on about even before Azealia’s wrongness manifested. She even harboured a small fear that there might be experiments, doctors in grimy coats injecting questionable solutions into her arm or force-feeding her pills or cutting inside her to extract the wrongness. Instead, there was work.

It reminded Azealia of the time her grandmother’s cousin was coming to visit, a distant relative who had secured herself a fancy title through marriage, and for a whole week every staff member worked tirelessly to make their house look as unlived in as possible. In the School, there was no cleaning staff, just the girls on their knees scrubbing the floor, nearly crawling into ovens to scrape away layers of soot, wiping down windows and bannisters, and always bringing up more black dirt. No matter how long they worked, one opened window or door would invite in another layer of smoke that adhered to every surface, demanding they rework the same pieces over and over again. Azealia was sure there was no special guest coming, but they were still forced to tackle a list of chores that had no apparent end. The tension that hung in the air threatened some grave consequence if they did not finish.

Azealia had almost polished a doorknob to something resembling a shine when the man in black swept through, not looking at the girls as he rushed up the stairs to whatever business he had in the School. He left a trail of dirt behind him that dulled the knob to its previous matte grey finish. When she woke that morning, she could still hear a girl crying from somewhere on her floor, though no one emerged from the other bedrooms. Perhaps the man was going to check on her. Azealia wondered what he could do to fix sadness.

The Headmistress interrupted Azealia’s wandering mind to ask for a volunteer to help in the stable, and Sydney jumped up and said the two of them would be happy to go. It was not until they were running hand-in-hand through a drizzle that splattered their dresses into a pattern like swirling smoke that Azealia realized that she had never even considered trying to help in her easier, wrong way. She was too busy. There was too much work with too strict instructions to suggest another method, and the mindlessness of the tasks made it too hard to think.

They ran down the side of the hill and Azealia saw a sturdy wooden building nestled at the base. An unpaved road curved from the main entrance of the School down to the stable’s great door, and the rain had turned the path to mud. Sydney banged on the door, laughing as she pulled her feet out only to have them sink back in, and Azealia laughed with her at the absurdity of their fruitless efforts to protect their shoes. When the door opened, they both stumbled inside, muddy up to their ankles and hair matted with the thick rain.

“Davey!” Azealia gasped.

She was so pleased to see a familiar face she ignored the way he stepped back from the girls, his arms crossed over his chest. There were several hulking carriages lined up behind him.

“Azealia,” Davey nodded.

Davey and Sydney ignored each other.

“I thought this was the stable,” said Azealia. “Where are the horses?”

“No horses needed for horseless carriages,” said Sydney, quickly, cutting off Davey.

Sydney kneeled on the floor of the stable, and Azealia realized that there was an array of mismatched objects on the ground. They seemed to be made out of metal, but all were coated thickly in the grime Azealia was starting to get used to. They were in worse condition than any of the bannisters or floors the girls had spent the day cleaning. She wondered if the School would be this dirty if they ever rested.

“What are these things?” asked Azealia, picking up a long, bar-like object that was surprisingly heavy.

“It’s a carriage engine,” said Davey. He took the object out of her hand, fingers pressing into the grim at one end, and Azealia was surprised at how deep he could dig into the debris. She realized that the object was a pipe, and it was supposed to be hollow, but the inside was packed solid. “They need a complete dissembled cleaning every month or so. When they get this clogged, they can’t work.”

“It only takes one of these doodads getting stuck for the whole engine to shut down,” said Sydney, already wiping off a rough rectangular shaped piece using the hem of her dress. “Some of these engines get pulled apart once a week.”

“Wouldn’t it just be easier to use horses?” asked Azealia.

“It’s not about doing things the easy way,” said Davey, passing the pipe back to her. “It’s about doing it the right way.”

The way he emphasized right made Azealia sure he was implying Azealia was wrong. Not just her opinion. Her.

Azealia knelt next to Sydney. Davey did not offer them any rags for cleaning, so she copied Sydney’s method, using her dress, staining it darker and darker as she went. Davey sat up on top of one of the carriages, watching them, apparently bored.

“You could help,” Azealia suggested.

“I’m not supposed to,” said Davey. “You girls are meant to stay busy.”

“Seems inefficient,” Azealia muttered.

“Get used to it,” said Sydney. She smiled up at Davey, a wicked glint in her eye. “You might not want to sit so high up. Something bad could happen.”

Davey hopped down like he had been burned. He leaned against the carriage, hugging himself, eyes wide, before he paced to the carriage at the far end of the stable and began dissembling its engine as well. The pieces he removed were not in as rough a shape as the ones the girls cleaned, and Azealia was sure he was just looking for a reason to stay away from them.

“Did you have a bad feeling?” Azealia whispered. “About Davey?”

“No,” Sydney whispered. “But he’ll never be sure. I’ll get in trouble for teasing, but it’s just too fun not to. The boy scares so easily.”

“I’m not scared!” shouted Davey, too loud for the enclosed space, and he ducked his head, embarrassed. “I’m not scared. I’m used to all o’ that nonsense.”

“How can you be used to it?” asked Sydney, smirking as she continued to clean. “You run away from us every chance you get.”

“My mom was a freak, too,” said Davey.

Sydney paused, only briefly, before she continued cleaning. She no longer seemed interested in Davey, but Azealia’s curiosity was peaked.

“Did your mom attend the School?” asked Azealia.

“Yeah,” said Davey. “I was six. I came with ’er.”

“When did she graduate?”

“She didn’t.”

Sydney was putting more effort than necessary into her cleaning, acting like the work consumed her entirely. Azealia tried to copy her, but her limbs felt heavier now. She did not think someone might not graduate who came to the School. It was supposed to make you better. She thought about the girl crying in her room, the man in black. Davey had paused and was leaning against the carriage, frowning at the floor. Azealia knew she should stay quiet, leave him to his thoughts, but she could not stop the shaking of her hands as the sturdy lamps cast their sick glow through the room.

“If you were six, she must have hidden her issues well for a long time,” said Azealia. “Had her own kind of control over them.”

“No,” said Davey, a dreamy expression softening his features. “She just only used them on me. And I didn’t know anythin’ was weird about it. But after my dad’s family realized he had died, they kicked us out o’ his place. Their place, I guess. And we went to the boardin’ house. Didn’t take too long for the women there to realize she was wrong.”

“What did she do?” asked Azealia.

“She sang to me, soothed me,” said Davey, but then he shook his head, and his face hardened. “I mean, she changed my moods. She could change anyone’s moods to anythin’ that she wanted.”

“But she only wanted to soothe you?” Azealia asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Davey. “What if she got mad some day and wanted to do worse?”

Sydney was glaring at her, a warning, but Azealia could not read it. And she was not sure if she cared to heed it.

“I don’t see how dangerous she could be if she just altered moods,” said Azealia. “I could be much more dangerous than that if I wanted to. Not that I want to.”

Davey looked up, his body swaying towards her and away, caught in a war of fear and confusion.

“What can you do?” he asked.

Sydney was shaking her head, not subtly. Azealia knew she was making the wrong choice. It had been less than a week since she let herself indulge, and she knew it was bad to do it, but she enjoyed it so much. She enjoyed the way Sydney’s mouth dropped open, and Davey’s eyes grew wide, not with terror, but with wonder. Like Azealia was something wonderful.

*     *     *
The man in black was not looking at Azealia like she was something wonderful.

She did not realize until he sat across from her that he was a minister. And she could not quite say how she knew. His black clothes could have just been stained that way from how often he travelled from the School to the city, in and out the door, trailing the soot with him. But the way he rested his chin on his folded hands as he offered Azealia a smile that did not reach his eyes reminded her of the old man back home who offered wafers by rote. This man was not old. Once, she thought he was handsome. Now, he was terrifying.

“How are you not tired?” she asked, though she knew she was supposed to be the one answering questions, not asking them.

He had entered her room the night after she and Sydney had worked in the stable. She was not sure how long ago that was.

“Practice,” he said. “Discipline. I don’t need any of the extra help you girls meddle with to be strong. Nobody does, not really. But you’ll learn that yourself.”


“You’ll keep busy, the right way,” he said. “It will become a habit. Or it won’t. Will you pass me that book?”

She kept her hands in fists at her side. He asked for that book the first time he entered, and when she handed it to him, he shook his head. He wanted her to pass it to him the wrong way. That was what she thought. But when she did, he threw it back at her, and the edge of the book’s hard spine hit her temple. The blood had dried now. She knew that she was not supposed to pass it the way he asked, but he did not leave her room when she refused to pass it the wrong way. She was sure there was no right way to do it, but he would not leave until she figured out the right way to do things. Everything was wrong. Maybe because she was wrong, so wrong she could not hope to know how to be right enough to please this man.

She only drifted into sleep once, fell back onto the bed where she still sat. She had felt something so hot on her wrist and opened her eyes to see the flame of his lighter dancing close to her skin. He still held the lighter loosely in one of his folded hands.

“I won’t do it anymore,” she said.

“How can I trust that you won’t?” asked the man. Azealia looked at her hands, but he snapped is fingers, calling her attention back. “I’m open to suggestions. How can I trust that you won’t engage in the wrong kind of behaviour?”

Azealia struggled to think. It was hard to tell how much time had passed when the rain made it so dark no matter the time of day. She had a feeling it had not been very long, two days at most, and hated herself for how weak she was. She hated that she did not have the ability to change her mood, like Davey’s mother.

She should have listened when Sydney told her not to trust anyone who worked here. Davey had looked so pleased at her trick. But he had been so fearful before. Of course he was going to tell.

“I’m a student at the School,” said Azealia slowly. “We get better. And we graduate. I’ll be better. I’ll get better.”

“Will you?” he asked. The man played with his lighter, clicking the fire in and out of existence. The dance of the small flame was hypnotic. He noticed her distraction, and Azealia braced herself for a punishment, but he seemed amused. “Fire can be a very powerful thing. It can bring warmth and light. It can also hurt us and wreak terrible destruction. But you know what? We don’t need it for either. We have electric heaters and lamps now. Safe. Controlled. Understandable. A fire can be fascinating, but you can never trust the fire. It can always hurt, even if it does not mean to. It cannot be anything that it is not, and it has no place in modern society. It is a remnant from the days of cave people. A less civilized time. Can you be civilized, Azealia? Not every girl can be.”

The man slipped the lighter into his pocket.

Not every girl got better. Davey’s mother did not graduate. Azealia could imagine that woman, was surprised at how clearly she could imagine her. She did not think Davey told her his mother’s name, but she knew the name of the woman she pictured.

“Like Ellen,” said Azealia.

The man crossed to her, grabbed her hands from her sides. She resisted for a moment, tried to pull away and could not. She wondered if she could make him go. She had never tried her wrongness on a person. But she did not try, and she stopped struggling.

“Tell me about Ellen,” said the man.

“Black hair,” said Azealia. “She was in a teashop, and something bad happened, but then it was like it did not happen. Or it did but-”

“She reversed it,” said the man.

Azealia nodded.

He released her hands and stood up.

“Thank you so much Azealia,” he said, smiling, and this time it reached his eyes. He looked handsome again, and Azealia hated herself for thinking it. “See how helpful you can be? If you listen and let us help you?”

Azealia nodded again, hoping he would leave. He did.

*     *     *
Azealia was woken by hands shaking her, and she instinctively put her arm over her head to protect herself.

“It’s just me,” said Sydney, and Azealia relaxed. The other girl wore a colourful t-shirt featuring the slogan for some sonic station. It was the first time Azealia had seen her out of the uniform dress, and though she had lost track of time, she did not think it was already the weekend. “Come on. We’re going to the river.”


“They’ve arrested one of the graduates,” said Sydney. “She wasn’t as fixed as they thought she was. The Headmistresses takes these failures personally. She won’t get out of bed, no matter what we do. Not for a few hours, anyway, so we need to move fast if we want to join the other girls. Give that failed graduate a proper send off.”

Azealia sat up in bed.

“Who did they arrest?” Sydney shrugged. Azealia was sure it was Ellen. “What are they going to do to her?”

“Her mind is not strong enough to control her body, so she loses the privilege to use either,” said Sydney. Azealia stared at her, confused. “They’re going to give her a lobotomy. It happens more often than the Headmistress would like to admit, but they usually catch the hopeless cases before they graduate.”

Azealia thought of the crying she had heard from another room, the crying she had not heard since the man in black swept his way up the stairs. She thought of Ellen, who saved all those people in the teashop with a flick of her hand. Azealia bit her lip, tears escaping out of her eyes, cutting through the grime on her cheeks. Sydney sat next to her and gently patted her shoulder, an awkward but appreciated gesture.

“What’s wrong?” asked Sydney.

“I think it’s my fault,” said Azealia. “I told the man in black ... I saw a woman in a teashop, doing something wrong, and I told him. And he left. I wanted him to leave, and that made him, finally, leave.”

She expected Sydney to yell at her, or cry, or strike her.

“I told the Headmistress what you did in the stable,” said Sydney.

Azealia was so shocked she stopped crying.

“Was she hurting you?” she asked.

“No,” said Sydney. “But I slipped a while back, and she wasn’t sure if she could trust me. She trusts me now. Like the man in black trusts you. And for a bit, we won’t have to worry about anyone coming to carve away our minds.”

Azealia brushed her sleeve over her cheek. The tears wiped away most of the soot. It was the cleanest she had felt since she came to the city.

She let Sydney take her hand and guide her out of her room.

*     *     *
It looked like all the girls from the School were at the river already, but they gathered with other women who were too old to be students. Azealia was surprised to see the woman with curly hair from the teashop among the older faces, as well as the four women with bright red hair who played in her favourite band.

The musicians swept their arms as they turned in slow circles, and when they turned, they disappeared entirely, until another sweep made them visible once more. The curly haired woman’s eyes glowed like fireflies, and another girl seemed to be comprised entirely of black smoke, not gritty like the smoke that still pumped out of the tall buildings in the city over the river, but a smoke as fine and pure as a shadow. Sydney grabbed Azealia’s hand, pulling her to the centre of the group, right before a girl released sparks of coloured fire from her fingertips that swirled around Sydney and Azealia in fantastic patterns and waves. Azealia would have considered them lucky to be in the perfect position to appreciate the display, but from the way Sydney winked, she was sure luck had little to do with it.

Every girl was indulging in her own brand of wrongness, not ashamed in the dark among her sisters, but exalting and glorious. The city looked so far away from them, and with its choking clouds of smoke, it did not look particularly civilized to Azealia. Compared to the wonderful things these students and apparent graduates could do, that city looked like a relic, only impressive to people as uncivilized as cave people who could not imagine anything better. Those people screamed at fire and embraced electric light that they could control.

But even fire could be controlled. The girls were not fire. Sydney squeezed her hand and Azealia squeezed back.

It was easy for Azealia to destroy the bridge that led to the city, to the people who kept their distance from the School. She just had to want to pull it down, like how she once wanted to pull the carriages that carted her sisters across a countryside so clean and free of gritty coal-burned smoke, like how she wanted to raise the pieces of the engine into the air before demanding all the dirt that stuck to them dropped away and it did. Azealia wanted to pull down the bridge and it fell into the river and the girls cheered around her.

She knew that the bridge would be built again, so much more slowly than if the Headmistress or the man in black asked Azealia to help. They would build it again slowly, inefficiently, with a patient ignorance that they would be proud of. Until Azealia tore it down again, waiting for a storm or a particularly heavy cart to blame, and the man in black would wonder, and the Headmistress would despair, but Azealia would pretend that it was all just a coincidence. She would act like she was better.

Though she could not help but wonder if there was more that she could do than symbolic destruction.

“Why don’t we just tear it all down?” Azealia asked Sydney. “The whole city. We could destroy it all, start over.”

“Do you want to destroy everyone?” Sydney asked.

Azealia thought of the mother with her baby in the pram, somewhere in the city. She would be caught in the rubble if Azealia tore it down. The man in black hurt her, but she did not really want to hurt him, or the Headmistress. They could only imagine fire and electricity. They were so small compared to every girl at the river. And every girl at the river could destroy them, but it did not mean that they should.

Azealia shook her head.

“Then you’re already better,” Sydney said, smiling at Azealia. “We’re already so much better than all of them.”

“But it’s not fair,” said Azealia.

“Not yet,” said Sydney. “But someday, we’ll be the teachers. We’ll be the ministers. We’ll be the mothers. We just have to make it through this. It’s awful but it’s temporary. And once we make it through, we’ll make everything better. Trust me. I have a good feeling about it.”

Azealia had a good feeling about it, too.

Crackle Ball