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Galway, Ireland

“Oi! You lost?”

The voice, close and unexpected in a place I thought I was utterly alone, causes me to gasp so hard I suck in rain and cough. My heart takes off, adrenaline streaking like lightning through my veins. I jump to my feet. Dizziness makes me sway, my hip knocking against waist-high stone.

Two identical young men scowl at me from ten feet away. Rough-looking sorts, standing so close they look like conjoined twins. They wear matching, hooded black sweatshirts, holey jeans with dirty cuffs, and scuffed, muddy black boots. Dark hair curls damply around their narrow, pale cheeks. Under straight black brows, their eyes are blue. Maybe gray—the fading daylight makes it hard to tell. They’re extremely tall and slender, with that perpetually hungry look teenage boys have. They can’t be much older than me.

I should be running but can’t remember why. The more I stare at them, rapt and still swaying, the less dangerous they appear. Something about them makes me aware of every fast beat of my heart. I can almost hear my sister’s excited, hormone-soaked whispers and wonder if I’m finally—for the first time in my fourteen years of life—experiencing sexual attraction.

As I mull on this revelation, the boys lift damp, hand-rolled cigarettes to their mouths, suck deeply, and exhale identical streams of chalky-blue smoke. Licking their full lower lips, they gather a bit of escaped tobacco on their tongues before spitting it to the side.

This must be some weird performance art.

“You look like a wet hummingbird,” they say, but even though both of their mouths move, I only hear one voice. The same lilting tenor I heard before. Logic surfaces like a whale breaching in the sea of alcohol that is my brain.



I blink rapidly, squinting, and the two figures resolve into one. Not twins, after all. A giggle escapes me. Mortified, I slap a hand to my mouth, then wince as my braces grind against delicate flesh. The boy makes a face like he thinks I might be crazy and drops the dark stub of his cigarette to the ground.

Before I can stop myself, I say, “You shouldn’t litter.”

He grunts. “You shouldn’t be hammered and wandering around a graveyard at dusk, Birdie, but here we are.”

My thoughts hopscotch over his words, landing hard on the one making my face heat. “My name isn’t Birdie.”

He shrugs. “It is now. You’d better sit back down before you fall, Birdie.”

My head swims and my knees weaken, depositing my ass on soggy grass. I slump against the gravestone at my back and close my eyes. My senses melt, softening and expanding. Raindrops tickle my face with a hundred tiny kisses.

Sudden pressure along my right side brings my eyes open a crack. At the sight of the boy so close, his shoulder and arm touching mine, shock ripples through me. But it’s muffled by something brighter that feels like someone lit a New Year’s Eve sparkler in my stomach. A sputtering, stubborn sensation I’ve never felt before. But I’ve also never been this close to a boy who looks like this one.

He gazes straight ahead, a tiny, knowing smirk on his face. He’s aware I’m ogling him and is amused. I’m suddenly grateful for the shots my sister gave me. Finding my way back to the hotel in town and dealing with my parents—probably distraught by now since Olivia told them we were going for a short walk—is a problem for future me. Present, drunk-me is just glad I don’t care if this boy knows I think he’s hot.

I can’t stop staring at the sweep of long, sooty lashes as he blinks. The faint freckles on his nose and blade-like cheekbones. The way a raindrop condenses at the tapered edge of one eyebrow, rolls downward, and is caught by a piece of dark hair on his cheek. There’s an indent beneath his lower lip, almost like a dimple. A promise of facial hair shadows his jawline and chin.

He shifts a little, hooking one boot over the other, long legs crossed casually on the soaked grass like the objective misery of wet jeans can’t touch him. The movement makes our arms press more firmly together. A familiar smell teases through the thick petrichor in the air. It takes me a few seconds to place the scent and where I’ve smelled it before—on my sister when she sneaks in late after partying with her friends.

He wasn’t smoking a cigarette.

“Do you have another joint?” I try to mimic Olivia’s flirtatious, confident voice, but the words are high-pitched and alarmingly slurred.

His head swivels to me, eyes bright with mirth. “Not a chance, Birdie.”

I sway toward him, caught in the undertow of his eyes. Their color is as unique as the rest of him—shifting ocean currents with hints of gray. I barely notice their glassy sheen or bloodshot sclera.

“How old are you?” I ask, then wince. I hadn’t given my mouth permission to say that.

His smirk returns. “Eighteen.”

The same age as my sister. She’d die to sit next to this boy. For a second, I feel guilty that I get to look at him up close and she doesn’t. Then I remember why I’m lost and soaking wet in a graveyard in Galway, Ireland to begin with. Because my sister lives to humiliate and discard me.

“What brings a wee bird out of her nest to fly among the dead this fine evening?”

His voice is so dry I can’t tell if he’s making fun of me or not. I’ve never heard anyone talk like him. Then again, in the week my family has been touring Ireland by car, I haven’t had a single one-on-one conversation with a local past generic, service-oriented pleasantries. Maybe they all converse in lines of satirical poetry.

Or maybe he’s as high as I am drunk.

“Vacation,” I mumble.

He chuckles, a manly sound that percolates sluggishly through my body, and taps his chin with a long, pale finger. His palms are big like he hasn’t stopped growing yet. I’ve never noticed a boy’s hands before.

“Let me guess where the bird flew from.” He squints at me, taking in my baggy sweatshirt, the black joggers on my thick legs, and the tasseled ankle boots that are hand-me-downs from Olivia and years past trendy. He snaps his fingers suddenly. “California!”

My sullen silence makes a smile overtake his face. It’s blinding but fades fast. An eclipse.

“Go on then, tell me.”

I frown. “Tell you what?”

“Why your eyes are so angry and sad.”

My heart jackknifes, slicing as it goes and spilling blood into my cheeks. “What?” I squeak.

His stare is heavy. Penetrating. Not exactly kind but not condemning, either, like he knows my problems are those of privilege but thinks they’re still valid. This boy, with his tattered jeans and sweatshirt with too-short sleeves, wants me to unburden myself.

It occurs to me with syrupy certainty that this is the most terrifying, humbling, and exhilarating moment of my life.

“This is your villain origin story, Birdie,” he says in a voice that’s my new favorite song. “The moment you confront who you are and decide to be someone else. Tell me.”

As the sky grows darker overhead and the rain keeps falling like a rippling veil between us and the rest of the world, I tell him everything. How my parents are getting divorced but this trip was already planned. How awful and awkward it’s been with them trying so hard to act normal while they can barely stand to look at each other.

How over the last two years, my sister has become a pretentious, vain bitch who treats me like a pet or a slave depending on her mood. I tell him what happened tonight—how when she asked me to go for a walk, I was stupidly excited she wanted to spend time with me. How she dragged me into a pub and stowed me in a dark corner before ordering four shots of whiskey from the bar. How a group of boys flocked to our table—to her—and I fell for her act when she introduced me like I mattered, telling them I was the coolest sister in the world.

I wanted so badly for that to be true that when she shoved two of the shots at me, I drank them one after the other. But they were disgusting, so disgusting, and afterward I had to hold my hands to my mouth to keep from throwing up all over the table. My sister laughed, the boys laughed, they all laughed at the awkward, mousey girl who wasn’t cool at all. Then Olivia did her own shots—easily, perfectly—and told the boys to take her somewhere better, leaving me without a glance or a goodbye. The bartender, noticing me alone at a table of empty shot glasses, panicked and shoved me outside. It took twenty minutes of stumbling back to the hotel for me to realize I was going the wrong direction. The graveyard called to me because no one here can laugh.

I tell him how I’m bullied at school and have no friends because I skipped two grades and am still at the top of my class. How I spend lunches alone, my head stuck in a book, and even the nerds won’t talk to me because I’m too weird for them.

Sometimes I feel like there’s a monster inside me trying to get out, clawing at my skin from beneath. And I don’t feel like I fit anywhere in the world.

“I’ll never fit anywhere,” I finish in a cracked whisper.

My confessor is silent. The encroaching darkness obscures his expression, but I can tell his eyes are closed. For a second, I think he fell asleep, and the devastation I feel is so violent, so encompassing, that I make a small, wounded noise.

His head swivels in my direction, eyes like dark pits but alert. They suck the remains of daylight, shimmering. Stars on a midnight sea.

“Do you know how I know you’ll be okay?”

I can barely speak over the relief clogging my throat. “How?”

A cold finger taps the end of my nose. “Because I was wrong. You’re not a bird, after all. You’re a lioness. A queen of the jungle still growing her claws. Hold fast, Birdie. Someday the world will kneel to you.”

I stare at him until my vision blurs and I’m forced to blink. Tears or rain gather on my lower lashes. My throat aches as I ask, “Even you?”

He doesn’t smile, but I feel his delight. “Maybe even me.”

Wind stirs around us. All at once, my body screams with complaints. I’m soaking wet, freezing, tired, and hungry. A shiver wracks me. My teeth start chattering. My head pounds.

He climbs to his feet, pale palm outstretched between us. “Up you go. I’ll walk you back to your hotel.”

His hand swallows mine and he lifts me easily to my feet. I stumble and he laughs, catching me with his other hand on my shoulder before I face-plant into his chest.

“You’ll start feelin’ better once we walk a bit. What’s the name of the place you’re staying?”

I tell him, knowing it means the end of us but powerless to stop it from happening. His fingers slip away from mine. I hate the way my hand feels without them. Small and pointless.

He turns and strides toward the entrance of the graveyard, skirting trees and gravestones like he has night vision. I totter after him, half-running to keep up with his long legs.

In no time at all—seconds, it feels like—we walk down a familiar cobbled street and halt outside a green awning. The rain has stopped. We’re not alone anymore. It’s too bright and loud. I want to go back to the graveyard. I want to ask him to tell me, tell me everything, too. Why he was there. What he dreams about.

But it’s too late.

I don’t feel like a lion or even a bird, each free in ways I can’t imagine. I’m afraid to face him, to be exposed physically the way I’m already exposed emotionally. He’s eighteen and beautiful. I’m fourteen and not. Maybe I looked okay in the half-light and shadows. But now he’ll see my lank, wet bangs and frizzy hair. My mouth, puffy from the braces behind it. My too-thick eyebrows. The roll of fat beneath my chin my mom says I’ll grow out of. The pimples that appeared on my face this morning, big and red.

The only thing that could make this moment worse would be my sister suddenly appearing in all her tanned, lithe, clear-skinned glory. But the universe must deem me worthy of pity because she’s nowhere to be seen. It’s just the two of us. Not alone anymore but still together, the last grains of us draining through the hourglass.

“Maybe I’ll see you in California one day,” he says softly.

I can’t help looking at him. Unsurprisingly, he makes waterlogged look like a fashion choice, even with the frayed hem of his hood sitting askew on his forehead.

“California?” I echo.

“That’s the plan,” he says, smiling slightly. “I’m going to wake up to palm trees and beaches every day while I make my mark. Someday the world will kneel to me, too.”

I believe him.

“Not you, though,” he adds with a wink. “Equals don’t kneel.”

“I think they do,” I whisper, my face flaming. “But only to each other.”

He grins. “Guess we’ll find out.” Touching an imaginary hat, he tilts his head. “Enjoy your stay in Ireland. And maybe lay off the whiskey until your claws grow in.”

He turns and walks away.

Panicked, I blurt, “Wait! What’s your name?”

He swivels toward me but keeps walking, his backward steps preternaturally confident over the uneven cobblestones. People stream around him like water around a boulder. I wonder if he realizes the world already sees him—makes way for him—and that’s why he knows they’ll kneel.

“Kieran Hayes,” he says, nearly shouting.


“Birdie!” he interrupts with a grin. “Your name is Birdie.”

Then he turns a corner and disappears.

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