Chicago, Illionois 1893
Ordinary girls are untroubled by destiny.
Unfortunately, neither amelia van den Broek nor Zora Stewart Birch was entirely ordinary. they leaned against the dining counter, watching the whole of the world grow smaller as they rose into the air on the great Ferris wheel.
Incandescent bulbs twinkled all around them, captured stars that illuminated the car and its sparse elegance. Seats with velvet cushions and wire backs filled the gallery, lazily spinning with no one to sit in them.
Tearing off a bit of fried dough, amelia pointed toward a white-columned building in the distance and said, “That one right there. You should go look at the murals; I helped paint them.”
“How many talents do you have, amelia?” Zora asked.
With a snort, amelia popped the dough into her mouth and said, “Too many. I see the future, I rise from the dead, I’m forever not strangling Nathaniel.”
“So your temper’s improved.”
Amelia laughed. “Hardly. I quarrel instead of strangle, and he does the same.”
Her eyes trailed to the corner of the car. Her Nathaniel leaned against the wall, talking to Emerson, entirely ignoring the view outside the window. He could travel on the wind; he had a sick and regular habit of jumping from heights for the thrill of it. Seeing chicago and its World’s Fair from a locked car didn’t interest him in the least.
After a moment, Zora pressed a finger against amelia’s nose, then laughed at her dazed expression when she tore her gaze away.
“You’re such a liar,” Zora said, marveling. “You’re still mad for him.”
“I am, I admit.”
“Good,” Zora said. “We needed one good thing to come from all that.”
In reply, amelia kicked Zora’s foot and let that speak for itself. I have you, it said. And you have me as well.
“Mean,” Zora said, then clutched the counter. She wasn’t sure she liked the view from this distance, and when the car swung ever so slightly, she startled. it turned out that she was a ground-beneath-the-feet sort of girl. Skyscrapers didn’t interest her, and she had learned to dislike the crush of cities. even though darkness mostly disguised chicago that night, it made little difference.
Toward the east, thin fingers of lightning stroked the sky. it was a storm so removed, it seemed more decoration than threat.
Amelia frowned at it. then she asked, “Does it worry you?”
“Not especially.” Smoothing a hand down amelia’s sleeve, Zora smiled. “I’m not in the middle of it; I didn’t command it. So I think it has better things to strike.”
They’d had days to unburden themselves, to make confessions and share new secrets. they’d spent hours acting like children, spending pennies on Magic lantern shows and sneaking into the opera, riding the train together, perched on top.
Pretending this visit would last forever, Zora would still sometimes grow sober and exchange a look with amelia. a room was different when four of them shared it. Not bad, but not right, as if everything trembled on the edge of explosion.
Amelia smiled crookedly. She felt the balance shifting and tried to cling to her best friend just a little longer. “I’ve been thinking. We could be the most remarkable wonder of the world if we wanted. a full circus, contained in four bodies.”
“We could call ourselves the Glorious elements,” Zora agreed. it would never happen, but they could spin fables about it.
“Barnum and Bailey would beg us to travel with them.” Spreading her hands out, Zora imagined the headlines. “A spectacle for the ages, see the gifts of the ancients performed before your very eyes.”
“We’d be world famous!”
Throwing her arms around amelia, Zora pressed their brows together. in a sudden, quiet confession, she said, “It frightens me sometimes, the things we can do.”
“The only reason it doesn’t frighten me,” amelia confided, “Is that I refuse to look anymore.”
Zora loosened her grip a bit. “I’ll look, but I won’t call it.”
“Is Emerson careful?”
“Oh yes.” Zora caught a glimpse of Emerson sprawled in one of the plush seats. He rubbed his own knees idly, his face turned up to listen as Nathaniel held forth. “It would be easy to ruin good land if he weren’t thoughtful. Between us, I’m the reckless one.”
Dark eyes lighting up, amelia laughed. “Which means you’re both ridiculously steady. Practically dull, even.”
“I resent that,” Zora said. “I stole a horse once!”
Falling quiet, they held tight as the wheel finally crested its greatest height. the fair below was nothing but bright sparks of electric light. chicago was a silhouette against the distant storm. in that quiet, crystallized moment, trembling in the sky, caged in glass, they both feared this was the end for them.
Zora was married; amelia planned to never be. One settled, the other wild, there was no reason for them to meet again. they would have to tend their friendship carefully if they wanted to keep it.
Interrupting them, Nathaniel tucked his yellow handkerchief back into his pocket and held out a hand. “We should go before the rain catches us.”
Amelia squeezed Zora once more, then turned to whisper in her ear. “Promise me this won’t be the end.”
Shaking her head, Zora pulled back to meet her gaze. “I swear it.”
Coming to join them, Emerson slipped an arm around Zora’s shoulders. “Good to meet you,” he said, and he meant it in an abstract sort of way.
The car was empty save for their little group, so Nathaniel didn’t bother with discretion. He unlocked the door, opening the car to the night sky. they still dangled above the fair, all its white lights miniature and blinking below them. Pulling amelia close, Nathaniel nodded his goodbyes. then he twisted the wind and they jumped. they disappeared, swallowed by the signature of Nathaniel’s magic: the black void and gold stars.
From without, Zora and Emerson stared at a space that was simply, suddenly unoccupied. the explosive edge to their meeting faded, and Emerson relaxed. Brushing a kiss against Zora’s hair, he held her tight when she curled toward him. “Was it a good visit?”
“Yes,” Zora replied. She closed her eyes and pressed her face against his shirt, breathing him in until the ache inside her faded. the hum of gears filled her ears, her skin prickling with the heat she drew from Emerson’s body.
Somewhere in Washington Park, amelia and Nathaniel stood beneath the glow of a phosphorescent lamp. trees whispered around them, turning their leaves to stretch for the coming rain. With water in the air, and the rivers that wound through town, they’d have to walk for a while.
Since they didn’t yet know where they were going, a walk before a storm suited amelia’s mood exactly. She wasn’t an ordinary girl; neither was Zora.
Connersville, Indiana 1906
The first time Julian Birch died, he was six years old.
It was autumn, precisely, just before it was time to mow the harvested cornstalks down. they stood sentinel in the fields, papery and gold. Stretching toward the horizon, they could be endless—and frightening. With each breath of wind, they hissed. they whispered at night. they towered and shook sharp fingers, and quivered. they were terrible. Sometimes, Julian sat in his eldest brother’s window upstairs. From there, the cornfields didn’t look like a menacing wall. the stalks stood in their rows, trapped in neat lines, separated by gullies. it was only corn, good to eat for boys and pigs alike, nothing dangerous at all.
When charlie found him at the window late in September, whispering to the fields, he went to carry him back to bed. Julian shivered all the way to his room. the walls bent toward them; dark faces appeared in the flowered wallpaper, baring their awful teeth. Pressing his face to charlie’s shoulder, Julian didn’t want to let go.
“All right, bedtime,” charlie said.
Julian clung to him, croaking, “My head is broken.”
With that, charlie carried him downstairs, interrupting his parents’ reading. each night, no matter how long the day, they always read together. Mama perched on Papa’s lap; she whispered poetry against his cheek, and he murmured the almanac in reply.
This vaguely embarrassed the older boys, but they suffered in silence. they weren’t invited to this ritual, and if they didn’t want to see it, there was always plenty of work to do around the farm, even at night.
“Sorry,” charlie said, shifting Julian in his arms. “Found him upstairs talking to the corn. I think he has a fever.”
Mama slipped to her feet, taking the baby and turning back in surprise. “Emerson, he’s burning up.” She still thought of him as the baby; her baby, golden-haired and brown-eyed, her favorite little sunflower.
“I’ll get the aspirin,” Papa replied, then looked to charlie. “Go make up the sitting room for him.”
Before dawn, Papa rode into town to fetch the doctor. The doctor couldn’t say for certain what the matter was, but with a fever so high and a child so listless, it could only be contagious. No one slept that night; Henry and Sam stuffed a straw-ticking mattress. Mama and Papa took turns bathing Julian with cold water from the well.
By dawn, Julian had a new bed in the pole barn. Mama arranged him on the mattress with the best pillow in the house. the ache in his head felt like a driven spike. it vibrated down his spine and stole all the strength from his legs. Mama came out with meals, but no one else was allowed inside.
Sam and Henry liked to run outside and knock at the walls. Sometimes they’d yell in if they found a toad or a snake or had had a good dessert at dinner. charlie came, but Julian never knew it. He huddled by the door and peered at him through the crack.
The barn was sweet and quiet, filled not with animals but with hay. light filtered between the boards, marionettes of dust dancing in the beams.
But for all that visiting, it was lonely, and he couldn’t sleep all the time. Mama would come, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She alone came inside. Knowing she’d soon be along to wake him made it easier for him to sleep.
At night, the corn whispered. it surrounded him, stretching for him, dried and dead and hissing his name as the cool autumn moon passed by.
The only good thing about his prison in the barn was that he didn’t have to walk all the way to the outhouse. He had his own pot. during the day, Mama carried it to him and took it away to be emptied. Julian didn’t want to use it alone, not at night, not with the cornstalks pressing in from all sides. Mama would check on him eventually, but on the fourth night, he couldn’t wait.
Rolling from bed, he collapsed. the bright green sting of hay dust hazed around him. His skin prickled; he wheezed breathing it in. cool earth spread out beneath him, and if it hadn’t been for the itching, it would have been nice. No more aching, no more burning—just pounded dirt, chilly at night and steady.
Still, it felt wrong to lie there. Pushing up slowly, Julian found that his arms held him, but his legs simply would not. they were soft as dough, and nearly as biddable. collapsing again, Julian peered at the door. it was open the slightest bit—if he could drag himself there, perhaps Mama would hear him call?
So inch by inch, he dug his fingers into the dirt and scraped across it on his belly. a chill broke out on his skin, and sickness drove a new spike in the back of his head. Though it felt like he had dragged himself for hours, it was only minutes, and barely half a foot. Wasted, his cheek pressed against the ground, he gazed through the open door.
Everything looked wrong. too blue, turned the wrong way. then he saw a scarecrow carrying his mama through the yard. the field’s terrible rasp wavered, filling the night and washing over him. Julian opened his mouth and shaped the words Mama, help! Papa, please! But no sound would come out.
Pain thundered through his head and, exhausted, Julian stilled. He lay his cheek against the floor and exhaled. a dead beetle spun, its husk rattling in the quiet. Blinking slowly, Julian blew on it again and watched as its spindly legs flickered. righting itself, the beetle skittered into the shadows, leaving Julian entirely alone.
His chest quieted, no heartbeat and no breath. the corn quit whispering; his skin stopped aching. everything went black.
But then, like a lantern starts with a spark and slowly glows, an ocean crept in. Sound came first, the rush of water chasing earth. Salt spread over Julian’s tongue, thin and liquid as waves stretched to fill the dark.
He’d never seen the sea, but he recognized a beach all the same. rocky outcroppings framed the water with sharp edges. Mist cooled his skin, and he made out a silhouette, barely discernible in the night.
Dark hair spilled from a cap, one silver lock fingered by the wind. a thread of fire traced the horizon, revealing a curve of hips, a hint of a smile. the sweet scent of honeysuckle swept around her.
Holding out her hands, she waited. She was tall and pretty and very grown-up, Julian thought, so he didn’t understand why she was waiting for him. Her lips moved, but his father’s voice spilled out.
“Wake up, Julian, wake up.”
And then it burned. everything—the girl, the ocean—peeled away in flecks of char and ash, and when Julian sucked in his next breath, he sputtered. lungs searing, and pain thundering back through his limbs, he cried when Papa shook him.
Tucked back in his bed, Julian pressed his face against his father’s rough shirt and shivered the rest of the night through. He was safe from the corn, from the dark, from the ocean—and he dozed as a black beetle rustled through the hay beneath his head.
That was the first time Julian Birch died. But it would not be the last.