Authors: Malinda Lo
Tags: #General, #Science Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance
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To my brother
The slightest advantage in certain individuals, at any age or during any season, over those with which they come into competition, or better adaptation in however slight a degree to the surrounding physical conditions, will, in the long run, turn the balance.
The Origin of Species
The birds plummeted to the tarmac, wings loose and
limp. They struck the ground with such force that their bodies smashed into dark slicks on the concrete.
“What the—” Reese Holloway pushed herself out of the hard plastic seat facing the floor-to-ceiling windows. Outside, heat waves rippled over the oil-stained runway. She glanced back at David, her forehead wrinkled. “Did you see that?”
David Li looked up from his book. “See what?” His dark brown eyes reflected the hard, bright daylight in tiny dots of white.
Reese tried to swallow the flutter of self-consciousness that rose within her as David met her gaze. She pointed at the windows. “These birds just fell dead from the sky.”
David’s eyebrows rose. “No way.”
David closed the book over his right index finger and stood. “Where?”
His shoulder brushed against her as he joined her at the windows. She took a tiny step away and said, “Over there—by those two workers.” A man in a blue jumpsuit pulled up in a baggage cart while another man, in an orange vest, ran toward him.
“You mean that dark stuff on the ground? Those are birds?”
Blue Jumpsuit was gesticulating at the sky and the remains on the ground, apparently explaining the birds’ fatal descent to Orange Vest.
“That was bizarre,” Reese said. The unforgiving glare of the sun on the neon-orange vest and the glistening lumps on the concrete gave the scene a surreal cast—like overexposed film. “Have you ever seen birds just crash to the ground like that?”
“No,” David said.
Reese watched Blue Jumpsuit pull a plastic bag from a container on the baggage cart. He stuck his hand in the bag and squatted down to pick up the remains as if he were cleaning up after a dog. David went back to his seat, but Reese remained standing until the birds were removed, leaving only a smudge on the pavement: the stamp of their final moments. When she sat down again she felt unsettled, as if the ordinary world had been knocked off-balance and everything was now listing slightly to one side.
Beside her, David had returned to his book, and she saw the title angling across the cover in a retro-futuristic font:
The Left Hand of Darkness
. She glanced at her watch. Their plane to San
Francisco had been delayed, but it was due to take off, finally, in an hour. The waiting had made her twitchy, and her leg bounced with nervous energy. She bent down to pull out her iPod from her backpack, and as she fitted the headphones into her ears she surreptitiously watched David turn a page. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, and the skin of his arm had a golden tone like sunlight during Indian summer. She took a shallow breath and forced herself to look at her iPod, scrolling through her music. But as the song titles rolled past, she wasn’t paying attention.
David was her debate partner. They had both joined the debate team at Kennedy High School their freshman year, but it wasn’t until junior year last fall that their coach, Joe Chapman, suggested they might work well together. And they did. They worked so well together that they qualified for nationals. When Reese’s mom found out, she was ecstatic. She even wanted to fly to Phoenix with them for the tournament, but her case ended up going to court during nationals—she was an assistant district attorney in San Francisco—so only Mr. Chapman had come with them.
Reese was glad, because she would have been even more embarrassed if her mom had been there to watch her lose. Afterward, Reese had called her from the locker-lined hallway behind the auditorium to tell her the bad news. Her mom tried to comfort her. “You can’t win them all, honey.”
Reese pressed her fingers to the bridge of her nose as if that would pinch off the disappointment that was spreading through her. “I know,” she said, schooling her voice to sound distant and detached.
But her mom wasn’t fooled. “I’m sorry,” she said gently, and
Reese fought the urge to cry. She had wanted to win, of course, but it was the way they had lost that hurt the most. It had been all her fault. “Do you want to tell me what happened?” her mom asked.
I screwed everything up because—because—
Reese couldn’t even think the words to herself. “It just didn’t go well,” she said. Behind her the door to the auditorium opened, and David came out. Their gazes met briefly, but when he quickly looked away, chagrin rose in her, hot and uncomfortable. She blamed herself, but she knew David never would. Somehow, that made it even worse.
“I know you and David were well prepared,” her mom said, “and sometimes it just doesn’t go your way.”
“Yeah,” Reese said, but her mom’s words didn’t register. David had stopped about twenty feet away, turning toward a bulletin board covered with athletic announcements. They were the only two people in the hallway; everyone else was still in the auditorium watching the final round.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. I know how you are, honey.”
Reese clutched the phone with nervous fingers. Was David waiting to talk to her?
“Are you still there, Reese?” her mom asked.
“Yeah. Sorry.” Reese wrenched her gaze away from David and stared down at the floor. A gum wrapper had been tossed onto the tiles, the foil glinting in the fluorescent lights.
“Oh, honey.” Her mom sighed. “I’m sorry, but I have to go. We’re heading back into court.” Her mom was in the middle of a big domestic-violence case. Her favorite kind—Reese knew her mom loved putting nasty husbands behind bars.
“All right,” Reese said. She saw David run a hand through his short black hair, making it stand straight up.
“I’ll call you tonight to confirm your flight info. I love you, honey.”
“I love you too, Mom.” She hung up, and at that moment David pulled out his phone and dialed, turning away as he lifted it to his ear.
He wasn’t waiting for her.
She was both relieved and let down, and the conflicting feelings sent a rush of heat through her body. Pocketing her own phone, she slipped past David and headed toward the lobby to look for their coach. David’s voice echoed down the hall after her: “Hey, Dad. No… we lost.”
Now, in the airport as she sat beside him, the memory of that day—was it only yesterday?—and all its disappointments surged up again, slamming into the off-kilter tension that gripped her after witnessing the demise of those birds.
Get a grip on yourself
, she thought.
“I’m going to walk around,” Reese said abruptly to David. “Will you watch my stuff?”
David nodded, and she stood, dropping her iPod back into her backpack on the floor. She saw Mr. Chapman threading his way through the seats toward them, carrying two bottles of water. He waved at her, and she waved back as she walked toward the center of the concourse. This trip could not be over soon enough. There were only a few weeks before school ended for the year, and thankfully no more debate practice. All of this weird crap with David would be done with, and she doubted they would be partners again next fall.
That’ll be a relief
, she thought, ignoring the twinge in her chest that told her she was lying to herself.
Reese passed the podium, where a blue-and-white-uniformed flight attendant was dealing with a line of five or six travelers. A harassed-looking mother herded two toddlers forward while dragging a suitcase and pushing a stroller. Reese was trying to avoid the stroller, her sneakers squeaking across the glossy floor, when she heard someone scream, “Oh my God!”
She turned to see a woman standing up, hands over her mouth and staring at the flat-screen TV hanging from the ceiling. The news was on as usual, and the Asian American anchorwoman had a hand pressed to her ear as if she were listening to a feed. Her face was grim. Reese took a few steps closer until she could read the headline at the bottom of the screen:
PLANE CRASH IN NEW JERSEY KILLS ALL PASSENGERS
The anchorwoman lowered her hand from her ear and said: “We have confirmed reports that an Airbus A320 has crashed outside Newark Airport. The cause of the crash has not yet been determined, but eyewitnesses have reported that the plane collided with a flock of Canada geese during takeoff. While airplanes are designed to withstand isolated bird strikes, apparently this was an entire flock—more than a dozen birds in all.”
A jolt went through Reese.
In her mind’s eye she saw the birds plunge to the tarmac again.
Other travelers began to gather beneath the TV screen while the anchorwoman repeated the bare facts. The plane had burst into flames when its fuel tanks exploded upon impact. One hundred forty-six passengers were presumed dead. Emergency crew on the scene were hoping to salvage some clues from the burning mess.
“This is crazy,” said a middle-aged woman standing near Reese. “Those poor people!”
“What is this about birds?” said a man in a Red Sox cap. “How could birds do this?”
The anchorwoman interrupted her own report, saying, “We have news of a second crash, this time in the Pacific Northwest. A Boeing 747 has crashed onto the coast near Seattle.” The anchorwoman pressed her hand to her ear again. “Information is still coming in. We do not know if there are any survivors of this second plane crash.” Her face stiffened, and she stopped speaking for a moment. Finally she lowered her hand and looked into the camera. “Early reports indicate that this plane was struck by birds.”
Reese gaped at the television as a collective gasp arose from the travelers around her.
“We have Lamont Bell on the line from the Federal Aviation Administration,” the anchorwoman said. “Mr. Bell, what is the chance of two planes being downed by bird strikes within an hour?”
The man’s voice sounded scratchy over the audio transmission, but it was clear that he was unnerved. “It’s not—it’s very unusual. I’ve never in my entire career encountered two plane crashes of such magnitude due to bird strikes.”
“Are you saying that you believe the planes crashed due to a different, unnatural cause?”
“I—no, I’m not saying that. I don’t know what caused the crashes. We shouldn’t speculate.”
“Eyewitness accounts indicate the presence of large flocks of birds. Is it impossible that the plane crashes were due to bird strikes?”
“No, it’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely.”
“Then you do think something else is part of the equation?”
“I don’t know,” Bell said, sounding exasperated. “Look, I don’t want to speculate.”
“Mr. Bell, I’m afraid I have to interrupt you again,” the anchorwoman said. “I’ve just received news that there has been a third crash, this time in Texas. Once again, reports do indicate that bird strikes may have been the cause of the crash. And—” She stopped speaking, turning to look off camera. Someone offscreen handed her a sheet of paper, and when she faced the camera again, she read directly from it. “I’ve been informed that the FAA has grounded all aircraft in the United States while officials assess the threat level posed by these accidents.” She looked into the camera. “I’m afraid we have some bad news for travelers today. I repeat: The Federal Aviation Administration has grounded all aircraft in the United States.”