LYLA’S eyes opened. Darkness. Cold. The walls, too close, the ceiling, too low, crept toward her.
The room isn’t squeezing shut. But she saw the walls press toward her and the ceiling sink. They closed her into a small, tight, airless cell, and then kept pressing in on her. She gripped the thin blanket, no protection at all.
Listen. She always forgot to listen. Coming through the dark was the sound of slow deep breaths drawing in, drifting out. Hope slept nearby, calm and quiet.
Lyla shut her eyes and listened hard. Matching her breath to Hope’s, she took air in. Then, breath matching breath, she pushed air out.
In and out, with Hope. Their paired breaths sounded like one breath, one person. The walls and ceiling lifted away.
The second time Lyla woke, she gave up on sleep. Trying not to think of her airless, shut-in-the-cell night terrors, she lit a candle stub and climbed to the top of the farmhouse, into the small warm room she and Hope called the Aerie. She sat, careful not to let her feet brush over the piano keyboard painted on the floor near one wall. When Hope played the painted keys, she tilted her head as if she truly heard notes, and Lyla couldn’t help treating the keys as though sound could rise from them.
The night terrors had started two weeks ago, not so long after Teacher Slate had invited her into her secondary school’s Advanced Studies room, which kids mostly called the Bright. She’d finally earned scores good enough to win a seat in the Bright. Yet primary alchemyks was far more confusing than she’d thought it was going to be. It was like a strange language but also like a strange mathyk: a blend of numbers, symbols, letters, and words that you used to form equations. And she wasn’t any good at learning them. But no primary alchemyks, no patron. No patron, no university. She’d be stuck grubbing for credit points the rest of her life. She wasn’t going to let that happen.
Heat seeped through the floorboards and warmed the backs of her legs and heels. The sight of her Aerie wall floated her spirits up. Drawings she’d ripped from old paperzines and broadsheets, along with her one letter, covered the wall: a paneled zine strip of lanky Pirate Jackman in his old-fashioned black trousers and his wide-brimmed black hat; a zine panel of Lady Captain grinning from beneath her floppy brown hat; a glossy roof-leaper at night, the lacy glow of its nose, its undercarriage propellers, and its wings; the letter, with an ink drawing of an actual book, inviting her into the Bright; a large broadsheet of the university’s tall, red brick library with its sign proclaiming AN OPEN DOOR FOR ALL WITH TALENT AND DILIGENCE.
There was also a lot to float up her spirits outside the Aerie’s small window, down the dark hillside toward town. Though it was early, lights brighter and steadier than any candle’s light already shone here and there: amber, blue, rose. Glittering, silent ice-ships skimmed the river ice, heading toward other towns downriver, or maybe even farther south, toward the cities. On the Hill, the steepest part of Hill’s Ridge, where she lived, but nearer town, the many lights at the Project shone like a thick layer of red-orange coals. Trying to hold the shine of these lights within her, Lyla closed her eyes. She vowed for the millionth time to earn the scores she needed to keep her seat in the Bright. She vowed to become an inventor and construct clean, lovely machines. One day, she would be surrounded by sleek metal and light.
She heard Hope call from below, “Lyla?”
“Coming,” she said, and climbed down from the Aerie.
In the dim candlelight of their bedroom, Hope was combing her smooth black curls. Even with sleep-droopy eyelids she was beautiful. “You couldn’t sleep again?” she asked. “Have you been up for a while?”
Hope leaned over and kissed Lyla’s temple. “Poor Ly.”
“I’m all right.”
Hope fetched hot water from the kitchen stove, and they sponged off. Then Lyla took her trousers from the well-sanded hooks Da had made for their bedroom in the fall, and she held them up in front of her. A patch in the backside was wearing thin. “I wish I could get new trousers. And boots.”
“They’ve ripped through?” Hope asked.
“We don’t have the credit points, Ly.”
“I know that, Hope. I said ‘wish.’”
Hope’s eyebrows rose in the way that meant, Better not to wish after what you can’t have. But Hope only said, “I’ll warm coffee. If we hurry we’ll have time to walk by the university.”
Why Hope couldn’t simply say, “Me too,” once in a while, Lyla didn’t understand.
She quickly pulled on a sweater and trousers, and carried the candle down the dark hallway to the kitchen. “Coffee?” Hope lifted the percolator off the cookstove, poured poor-man’s coffee into a mug, and handed it to Lyla.
Lyla raised the mug to her face. It smelled faintly of burned chicory roots. “Seems a little weak.”
“I ran Ma and Da’s grounds through again. The grounds were cold—Ma and Da must’ve left pretty early. Did you hear them?”
“No. I didn’t hear them come home last night, either. They must be taking long shifts.” Lyla’s stomach growled; she wanted porridge, but she knew they were out. In the last few weeks, there’d been grain shortages in the shops. Words suddenly wrote themselves on the insides of her eyelids: There’ll be grain for sale at the next shadow market. No, she couldn’t risk going to another. Not ever again.
“You all right?” Hope asked. “You sound hungry.”
“Yeah. I’m just eager to drink this.”
Hope started to laugh. “Sure you are.”
Lyla gulped it down. “Let’s get on. So we can go by the university.”
Lyla pulled on her coat and knit cap, and then she followed Hope outside. Together, they rushed over the packed-snow path through the clearing. They passed the barn, which leaned as though the north wind had reached out a hand and given it a shove. They passed the pines that didn’t quite hide the remains of the old stream-driven tiller. The rust-red metal handles and tines poked up through the snow.
When the girls left their farm’s path for the larger path, they went faster. The Hill was usually safe, but not always. Ever watchful, Hope walked with her back so strai...