Connecticut, June 1980
A pale blip dashed across the hockey field. Flitted into the shadows where the evening dew gathered, knapsack bumping against her back. Willows at the edge of the field grazed her forehead. Their branches rustled as she passed.
Her chest burned into her throat. Slipping through the tall hedges lining the Banderhock campus, she shimmied down against the dirt, breathed in the thick scent of humus, clawed at it, until finally she crawled face first into the cold of the chain link fence beyond the shrubbery.
Tatiana laughed, a quick, self-mocking snicker. A sparrow, white breast spotted gray, clung to its perch atop the now-vibrating fence, twitching its head in the hazy evening light. It examined the girl lying in the dirt below and cheeped before pushing off in a flash of wings. With a glance over her shoulder, Tatiana pulled herself up and swung herself over the fence, thumping down with a grunt and nearly falling. Her palms ground against pebbles.
Something trickled behind her knee. A smear of blood: a little scratch, nothing more. The stragglers, the slow eaters and the dawdlers, would be filing out of the dining hall soon. Lights out would be in two hours and someone would realize she was missing. Tatiana sprinted down the back road toward New York. The gray of dusk deepened.
She didn’t have an exact plan for when she got into the city, but she’d have graduated by the time she had an exact plan. To act at present had become her requirement. As soon as she realized this, she made the hastier plan, the I-can’t-take-this-anymore-I’m-getting-the-fuck-out plan. How could she stay here? She’d turned possibilities over and upside down, again and again, until something inside her burst—and with it the ridiculous hope that her father, for two years thought dead, would come get her (tomorrow or next week or on the seventh day of the seventh month or some other mystical configuration she concocted) and regale her with incredible tales of where he’d been and what bravery he’d shown. Now there was only the specter of that other certainty. Not yet proven but lurking, a lugubrious hobgoblin crouching heavy and low upon her insides, seeping dark juices, ready at any moment to spring: he wasn’t ever coming back. (Didn’t they always say listen to your gut? Didn’t some cultures, also, read fortunes using splayed animal guts?)
There could be anywhere. There was away. She needed there; here was closed in, too falsely safe, too hiding of truth. For now, there was New York, sprawling and alive, big as Buenos Aires—bigger—a place to run and burst and be, unenclosed.
Sprinting faster than she had ever tried to in gym class, she felt the heat expand in her. The dark slime of her blood pooling in her ventricles, reluctantly churning. Her inner muck. After twenty or thirty minutes of this she stumbled. Vomited. Her knees shook in her clammy hands.
This won’t do, she thought. Saliva dripped from her mouth. This won’t do. She wiped it with the back of her hand, ran her nose along her sleeve. She should’ve changed out of her uniform, but changing in the woods would only cause delay. For a moment she saw herself among the trees, barefoot in her white underwear, in the glow of dull moonlight. A wet leaf stuck to one calf.
In the fog-milk of the woods, at other times, she had spied Banderhock students in furtive action. She hadn’t entirely understood or taken part in that frenzied awakening of hormones: up against trees, or down in the bushes rustling. One time, a girl had seen her seeing them and smirked. Tatiana’s belly had seized and quivered while her feet stayed rooted in the springtime mud. Later, by the curling steam of the cafeteria hot tables, the girl had murmured low in her ear: perv. But usually, no one noticed her. These sightings became a regular part of her reconnaissance missions as she searched for the best way off school grounds.
Rocking now from heel to ball, heel to ball, she braced herself to run further. Her mad hot belly compelled her. Oncoming night chilled the air, which bore the herbal scent of a fragrant bush she couldn’t make out in the dark; she crushed its feathery branches, inhaling. The scent reminded her of something, of grass and of nickel, of her father or Lolo or something between her ideas of them. Crickets chirped. It was on the tip of her tongue, the name of that fragrance. It bothered her, but it shouldn’t, because she should keep running. The sweat made her colder. She spat bile and then, looking up, saw the high beams of an approaching car. Still bent over and clutching one knee, she put out her thumb.
The green Cadillac slowed, then stopped. The driver, a young man with a greasy brown cowlick, leaned out the window to get a better look. He wore a plaid shirt, sleeves rolled up skinny forearms roped with stringy muscles. Tatiana rose from her crouch, panting.
“Something the matter?” asked the man.
Tatiana wiped her runny nose again. “No. Can I get a ride?”
The man raised an eyebrow. He thrummed the car door with dry fingers that had remnants of motor oil sunk in their creases. He glanced down the road, over Tatiana’s shoulder. “Where to?”
“New York City.”
His eyes skittered over her unwashed hair tied in a knot, her disheveled blouse, and the plaid skirt she’d hiked up as she ran. She tugged the hem down as she thought, I’m a mess, he’ll say no, but he nodded with pursed lips that seemed to say: of course. “It’s where I’m headed. Hop in.”
Tatiana wanted to belt out a whoop but suppressed it: her throat still burned. She jogged over to the passenger side. It would be a couple of hours to New York from northwestern Connecticut. She wondered why the man had chosen a back road, but didn’t wonder too much. She could be sitting in the cold dirt trying to catch her breath, vomiting and snotting all over herself, or she could be driven into the city in some measure of style. There was something glamorous in this: two young fugitives joining forces in the woods, speeding into the big city without care. The urge to bounce against the seat passed, and she looked out the window as they turned onto another country road.
Tatiana cleared her throat. The young man handed her a slice of lemon from a small plastic container of lemon wedges nestled beside the emergency break.
“Here,” he said. “It’ll make your mouth feel cleaner.” She hesitated, then took the lemon and bit down on it. Its juice seared over stomach acid. “You from the school?”
She cleared her throat. “Why do you keep lemons in your car?”
“You from the school?”
“No.” A shameless lie.
The man scoffed. “I’m Bobby,” he said. A pause. He waited for her name.
“Pluta,” she said, as clearly as she could enunciate, so that the “t” did not devolve into a “d.” It was a name she’d devised for herself in early childhood, her special secret identity, cultivated almost as long as she could remember. Her parents had reluctantly consented to call her that, but when she arrived at Banderhock two years ago she’d wavered, become embarrassed for some petty adolescent reason, decided to stick with her more regal, more normal given name. But, Pluta. It had a dark ring to it that she still liked, and she would use it in the city. She hadn’t yet settled on a surname that was suitable. Phantom. Fantasy. Phanta. She would have to keep thinking.
“That’s an unusual name. What is it?”
Pluta–for now she was no longer Tatiana, but Pluta–coughed. Ahead lay the dark road, small patches of asphalt illuminated by the Cadillac’s high beams. “Brazilian. From a place in the Amazon.”
“That where you’re from?”
“Yes. Well, no.”
Bobby tapped the steering wheel, waiting for an explanation. The car accelerated.
“I am from Buenos Aires. Argentina. Do you know it?”
“But I have an aunt in Brazil. I stayed with her for a short time.”
“So your aunt named you?” His fingers continued drumming the steering wheel. The car’s speed steadied.
Not exactly. Pluta didn’t care to explain. “Ye-es.” Pluta, the name, had nothing to do with the Amazon, as far as she knew, because she had made it up. She was getting into trouble. Keep it simple, she told herself.
Bobby’s eyes–large, brown, young–rolled. A gleaming flash of whites. He refocused on the road, accelerated again. “Your accent is kind of strange. Like, real proper, but off. I don’t mean it in a bad way. Sort of British, but not. Sort of American, but not.” He laughed as he changed lanes. “I’m just saying.”
“Oh,” she said. No one had really commented on her accent before. Not in two years at Banderhock, except early on, in the crucial first days of school when Casey had only said, demurely, “I like it,” and she had muttered “Thank you” and shrunk away to make herself invisible, but then befriended Casey later, sort of. Her parents had moved her to a British school in Buenos Aires, and then her mother had moved her here, and it had changed her, made her strange. She was strange. It came out in her voice.
Anca L. Szilágyi‘s debut novel is Daughters of the Air. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, and Lilith Magazine, among other publications. She is the recipient of the inaugural Artist Trust / Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award, a Made at Hugo House fellowship, and awards from the Vermont Studio Center, 4Culture, the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, and the Jack Straw Cultural Center. The Stranger hailed Anca as one of the “fresh new faces in Seattle fiction.” Originally from Brooklyn, she currently lives in Seattle with her husband.
Daughters of the Air is available December 5th, 2017 from Lanternfish Press.