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Sparrowjunk
    by Margit Elland Schmitt

Sparrowjunk
Artwork by James Owen

The first time Steve saw the junkie - really saw her - she was on the fire escape outside his son Matt's room, sitting next to the bird feeders and looking like she was drowning in the rain. He crossed to the window and had a fleeting impression of a thin face beneath pale, draggled hair, and the flying tail of a long, dark coat. Then she took off, vanishing in a clatter of feet down the stairs, and Steve found himself with both hands pressed cold against the window, his breath fogging the glass.

"Dad?" said Matt. "What is it, Dad?"

Matt. Sitting up in bed with his sandy hair sticking out at all angles. He wore fuzzy, footie pajamas, and had a faded pillow case safety-pinned round his shoulders for a superhero cape. Matt was only five. Steve didn't want to scare him. He could see that the window was still locked; ran his fingers over the mechanism to be sure. He closed the curtains to shut out the rain, the junkie, and the night in one swift motion, and wiped his hands on his jeans.

"Thought I saw something in the bird feeders," he said. "Probably a sparrow."

"A really big sparrow? Or maybe it was a rat," said Matt, more intrigued than horrified.

That was part life in the city, where pigeons and rats, alley-cats and squirrels, were what passed for wildlife. Matt didn't get outside much these days. The room was littered with picture books and building blocks, with one corner entirely devoted to the dirty laundry Steve kept telling himself he needed to get to. A domino trail led from a Lego castle guarded by a stuffed dragon, back and forth to the mysterious shadow-world under the bed, and out into the hall.

There were binoculars on the night table next to the medicine bottles. Matt had decided that if he was stuck inside, he was going to watch birds through the windows. The bird-feeders had gone up the next day and drew plenty of visitors.

Most days, Steve came home from work and Matt had some story or other about a rare crested blue jay or pigeon sighting. Leah, the sitter had a copy of the Birds of America, and Steve tried to throw as many birds as he could into bedtime stories. Matt could go on about feathers and beaks, nests and eggs for hours on end.

Steve thought of it as a good luck charm. Since the bird feeders had gone up, Matt had started responding to the medication. He had energy now, enough to be restless and cranky, to be bouncing off the walls. He'd broken a lamp playing catch with himself against the wall. He'd found a screwdriver and taken apart the toaster. Steve ate his bread untoasted in the morning and didn't complain. Anything, anything was better than relapse.

Before he'd gotten sick, Matt hadn't been a bird lover. Digging in the dirt, yes. Climbing trees, yes. Dinosaurs, dragons, bugs and blasters, yes and yes. But then they'd found the tumor and given up the house with the yard, given up a hundred other things, so they could come here, where the experts were supposed to make things miraculously better. Instead of miracles, they had had bills and emergency room visits, and an endless wait to see if this round of chemo would take. And now, after all this time, the birds.

Matt's mother, Sharon, had loved birds.

"Where was I?" Steve sat down at the bedside chair and picked up the storybook again, unopened.

"Was it a rat, Dad?" asked Matt. "Or just a bird?"

"Neither," said Steve. "I just thought I saw something, and it turned out not to have wings or a tail. Where was I?"

He raised his eyebrows. Matt grinned.

"The skeleton was sitting on the Emperor's chest," said Matt. "Going to grind his bones, or squish him to death." He rubbed his hands together in ghoulish glee.

Steve grinned back at him. "Right," he said. "Half-dead Emperor, giant spooky skeleton, and then who should come to save him but . . . the nightingale."

"In a rocket ship!" said Matt.

"Of course," said Steve. They both made special effects noises, and Steve figured it was just as well that old Hans Christian Andersen wasn't within earshot to hear the addition of the battle scene in the Emperor's bedroom with light sabers and laser cannon while the nightingale sang her love song.

Finally Matt's night-time meds kicked in. He fell asleep, and Steve tucked him in.

Lights out - and Steve saw a figure silhouetted by the streetlight against the curtain. A vague and slender misery. A person-shape, sharp and clear, of someone huddled up against the glass, listening. Steve crossed the room and reached for the curtain. But then he abruptly turned around again and left Matt alone and breathing softly, deeply in the dark.

In the morning, it greatly disturbed him that he hadn't opened the curtain again. While Matt was in the bathroom, Steve went out onto the fire escape. He was half-relieved and half-annoyed to discover how hard it was to wrestle the window open. On the plus side, it meant nobody was coming in without wrestling too and making hell all noise in the bargain. Still, it pissed him off.

He was wondering whether Matt could wrangle them on his own if there ever was a fire when he began to poke half-heartedly around the fire escape. But whoever had been out there last night hadn't left anything incriminating behind. No cigarette butts or crusty needles. Just rain -- a steady drizzle onto the slick, white-painted metal grating of the landing and the rattling stairs. Only wind, and the concrete-and-damp-oil smell of a city in the thaw.

He did call the landlord and the super, both of whom insisted that the fire escape was for getting out of the building, not into it. Steve checked it for himself on the way to work. He went around the building, never mind the rain, which by then had turned from a drizzle to a torrential downpour. Back behind the dumpsters, the fire escape came to an end -- at the second story. There was a drop-down ladder, but it was secured in the up position. The only way onto it was from the roof. Or from inside the building . . . That was Steve's next thought, as he sat at work, unable to concentrate on anything else. He knew, just knew, that junkie had been there before. A glimpse of her on the run had not been enough to show him any clear details, but the thought of her sitting on the fire escape had set off a frisson of memory, dozens of other glancing hints of presence -- hair, hand, coat, foot -- that might have been the same, or might simply have been a dream. It was enough that Steve was sure he'd know her if he saw her again.

"Somebody's been sitting on my fire escape!" he said to himself in the car, laughing with a new appreciation for Papa Bear and his family's plight. All this over what was probably nothing -- some neighbor's kid sneaking out to party with friends on a school night, for all he knew.

When he got home, Matt was drawing pictures of birds -- brown and blue blobs with wings, most of them. Matt was hungry, so they had macaroni and cheese for dinner, and hot dogs, too. Matt ate maybe three bites of each, and, feeling guilty for being such a bad dad as to feed his sick kid junk food, Steve tried everything including bribery to get him to eat a handful of grapes for their token nutrition.

"I don't need nutrition," said Matt. "I got vitamins and my medicine."

Steve felt he had a moral obligation not to cave in on the important stuff -- like grapes -- just because the fear of losing his only son made him want to break down and cry. He pulled the ultimate Dad card instead: "No grapes," he said. "No dessert."

After cookies and milk, there were video games while Steve looked over Matt's homework -- the bird drawings, and a detailed explanation of how much bird seed Big Bird would eat if he, like the sparrows and jays at the birdfeeder, chomped down on seven times his body weight every day. Matt and Leah had put together some alphabet work in a bold, red crayon, and Matt showed off his skill with a new math puzzle, racing the clock and winning. It was good. Outside the rain fell and the wind rattled the fire escape, but inside, it was all light and warm. They sat on the sofa and watched one of Matt's DVDs. Matt dug in with bony elbows and knees every time the bad guys took a punch. Steve was sure he'd be covered in dollar-sized bruises in the morning. If only Sharon had been there . . . if only bath time hadn't been followed by medicine time . . . it would have been perfect.

Matt got tucked in. Then, it was story time.

Cinderella, the very grim, Grimm version, because that was what Steve could tell out of memory. There were other versions, cleansed of violence. They sat wrong in his mind, twisted and somehow false. Liars on the page. Now, he told the story to Matt the way that felt right. The book, as always, sat unopened on his lap. He didn't need it, except as a place to put his hands. He knew the story. It was the version he liked best, the one with golden slippers instead of glass, and a golden gown shaken down out of the leafy, salt-watered, graveside tree. With the ambitious sisters limping on bloody, mutilated feet, and Cinderella's rescue coming on the wings of dozens of birds. No godmother fairy at all.

Matt's medicines kicked in and he fell asleep before the end. Steve sat for a long, quiet moment, just watching his son's narrow chest rise and fall with each laborious breath. He could set the storybook aside then, and reach out to touch Matt's hair, his cheek, his hands. It wasn't to check for fever, but just to touch, to remind himself of what was real, what mattered.

Steve rose then, tucked the blankets carefully up around Matt's narrow shoulders, crossed to the window, and opened it.

There.

The junkie stood as if she'd been waiting for him, a slim figure hunched against the fire escape, while the wind grabbed and tossed at the oversized, black coat she wore, so the tails of it flew out into the night like wings. She looked strangely as though she'd been both hoping and dreading he would appear. The two emotions beat back and forth across her face with the give-and-take of a pulse, as though she couldn't hold on to either feeling long enough for it to settle.

He thought at first she was the teenager he'd expected, but there was something in the way she moved, the glance of her eye that said otherwise. She might, he thought, be any age at all. Her unlined face did not speak of youth. No, she looked as though she had been sitting in the winter dark since before there was winter.

She looked, he thought, like something carved from memory, something that had been extravagantly beautiful once. But the unending rain and wind had worn everything away to bare essentials. She had a long, thin nose centered in a pale, thin face in which her eyes gleamed, overlarge, out of skull-dark hollows, and over which fair hair was plastered in long, lank, streaks.

She looked cold and wary and very much alone.

He did not invite her inside.

It was dark out but for the streetlight and the light coming from his own window, and cold. He could see the warm air spilling out in rolling clouds all around them while they stood on opposite sides of the barred window. She did not shiver -- in a very deliberate way that implied steely pride rather than immunity from the cold.

There was something unquestionably inhuman about her, and Steve did not want this beautiful, ageless woman-thing to set one ice-cold toe in Matt's room.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"I am the evening shade," she said. Her voice was soft, but the wind carried it to him. His ears seemed to quiver, animal-like, trying to stretch themselves to catch that sound. A husky, low-pitched voice that reminded him of water, though not of rain, or of music in some undefined way that had very little to do with singing. "I am a haunted melody half-remembered. I am summer's regret. I am the last hope of an unlucky man. I am a bishop's curse and a beggar's blessing. I am the dream of flowers in winter. I am the woken nightmare. I am moonlit laughter and starlight tears. I am seen with the eyes and believed with the heart."

Steve rolled his eyes, feeling a surge of irritation at her nonsense, at his own fears. She was high, he thought.

"Tell me who you are," he said.

"A sparrow, living off the crumbs you let fall."

"What are you doing here?" he made his voice harsh. "What do you want?"

"Tell me a story," she said.

Steve shook his head and backed away. He closed the window. Locked it. He made sure of the bars, and drew the curtains. His hands were like ice, but they didn't shake until he turned round and saw Matt, still sleeping, undisturbed.

He believed her.

"Tell me a story," she said on the next night, when he only stared at her through the window. He watched her through the glass and did not even open it. Her lips moved. The sound was muffled, but Steve could tell what she said.

"Tell me a story."

He started moving the bedtime rituals to the living room, away from that big, benighted window and the harmless-seeming shape that lurked just outside it. Steve made sure all the curtains were shut, that not a chink of darkness could get inside. He tried giving up on story time altogether, but Matt rebelled.

"I liked it better the old way," he said, his face flushed in a way that presaged a tantrum . . . or a fever. "Why do you always have to change everything?"

Steve didn't have the heart to keep it up after that. There wasn't anything left in his life but Matt. Maybe there was a little pride left, too, enough to keep Steve from admitting his fears, even to himself. A woman on the fire escape. It was easy, in the warmth and light to remember she was small and thin. Matt still slept in the same room. That was only a problem if Steve believed that what waited outside the window was a monster.

Steve believed in monsters. He did not think the junkie was one.

He tucked Matt into bed, and told him the story of Mother Holla. Matt thought the heroine, who dropped diamonds and pearls from her mouth like an exploding jewelry box whenever she spoke, was liable to choke to death if she talked in her sleep. He laughed hysterically at the fate of the unkind daughter, too. For Matt, it was a short jump from imagining frogs and snakes falling out of his own mouth, to demanding a burping contest. Matt won, shortly before the night meds kicked in again, and he settled into the pillow, closing his eyes in drowsy triumph.

Steve set the unopened book aside and reached over. He touched Matt's cheek and hand, both too warm, but what could he do? The chemo had hollowed Matt out, eaten away the good with the bad. All they could do was wait and see which would come back strongest, but in the mean time, Matt was prey to every germ, every chance infection. They couldn't live inside a bubble . . .

"Tell me a story," said the junkie on the fire escape.

Steve didn't remember crossing the room or even opening the window, but he must have.

The night was clear and very cold. He was standing in it, watching the frost form on the fire escape, while the thin, pale junkie huddled in the wings of her thin, dark coat.

She, too, had not been well. Her skin was stretched like tissue over the bones beneath, and her lips were dry and chapped. There was nothing alluring about her; he could all too easily believe she was dying of addiction and neglect. His insides twisted in a strange mix of pity and anger.

"What happens then?" he asked. "Tell you a story, and what then? How is that going to help anything?"

Her shadow-filled eyes opened and shut. She moved her head a little from one side to the other. It was not negation, but rather like the way a bird moves when it considers a choice of seeds on the ground.

"I could help him," she said. She lifted one long, bony finger, and, instinctively, Steve stepped in her way, blocking Matt from her line of sight. Her eyes flickered, bright and dark together, and searched Steve's face. "There is sickness in him, and he is weak. I could keep the fever at bay. I have that much power."

Steve could feel his heart plunge and shudder, so that his ears rang with the sudden, eager beat. Power. It was hard to connect that word with this fragile, frostbit woman; yet he could sense the strength of her will beneath the brittle ruin of her body. Power? He believed her. He believed the universe had in it some force -- call it miracle or magic -- which could do what medicine alone had not. There would be a price, though. In the stories, there was always a price. Steve believed in those stories.

"You will keep . . ." he wouldn't give her Matt's name, "my son from getting sick?"

"I will drive away the fever," she said.

"And all I have to do in return is . . ."

"Tell me a story."

Night after night, he did just that. He gave her Snow White and Rapunzel, the Frog Prince, King Thrushbeard, and the Six Swans. Every night, Matt would go to bed listless and feverish, and every morning, he would awake with the heat and sickness gone, all bright eyes and boundless energy. He thrived, until bedtime, when whatever spell had been cast seemed to falter, and Steve found himself watching the window, waiting for that shadow to reappear.

While Matt slumbered and the junkie worked her spells, Steve told her of princes who could not remember their lovers' faces, and of princesses whose riches were stolen away. When inspiration for fairytales ran out, he gave her movie plots, and she laughed at him, knowing in an instant which stories he believed, and which ones he only told to make the time pass.

Hours later, he would close the window, and his mind would be reeling. In the morning, while chasing after Matt and getting ready for work, Steve found he could not really remember which stories he had told her, as though in the telling of them, he had dropped each of those stories down some deep and bottomless well from which they could never be drawn back out again.

In fact, he told her more than he meant to. But she listened to him so deeply, drawing stories from him one after another with such smiling patience, and the words spilled out like vomit.

"The other driver was drunk," he said. "At four in the afternoon, he never stopped for the light. His blood was twice the legal limit. Sharon had just called me a few minutes before. She was taking Matt to sign up for T-ball. When the police called me at work," he said, "I thought it would be Sharon. I thought she was going to ask me to pick up milk at the store on my way home. She was dead by the time I got to the hospital. The funny thing was," he said. "The funny thing. Was. That was the day they found Matt's tumor. He never had any symptoms. If they hadn't been in the accident, it would have been too late to operate."

"What happened to the other driver?" the sparrowjunkie asked.

Steve blinked and gave her a broken half-smile. "Probation," he said. "And his driver's license was suspended. He had to take the bus for a few months, and clean trash off the side of the highway."

"Do you wish he were dead?" she asked, her head tilted a little to one side. She listened, always, with intensity, and Steve hesitated, remembering too many days when Matt had been in the hospital, the world crazily tipped on its axis and he'd been on the verge of losing everything, remembering how easy it would have been to swerve, to take out one or two of those orange-vested figures on the edge of the highway. He had resisted the urge. In the same way, he resisted the tidal pull of that question for one heartbeat, and then another.

"I try not to."

Sometimes Steve wondered how much Matt overheard of these late-night conversations. He never mentioned them. It was as though, for Matt, the world simply stopped when the night meds kicked in.

"You should've seen it, Dad!" Matt was thin as a rail, too excited to want to bother with the soup that was all he could keep down lately. "Spring's coming and the sparrows -- I saw them! There's some other bird that's been trying to build a nest over my window, and the sparrows were chasing him off. It was great! The sparrows are crazy, they were all over the place!" He swung his hands through the air, making noises better suited to dog-fighting jet planes than songbirds, thoroughly delighted by the battle, though he couldn't say who won. Steve should have been grateful, but felt a seeping sense of guilt instead. He'd never kept secrets from Matt before.

But what was the alternative? There was no question of waking Matt up, introducing him to the junkie. Steve didn't even know her name. He knew nothing about where or how she lived. He spent hours talking with her every night, but let her in off the fire escape? Let those shadowed eyes meet Matt's?

No, and no.

Matt dragged Steve out of his reverie with both hands. He caught hold of his sleeve, giving it several urgent tugs.

"I said I want some mealworms, Dad!" he said.

Steve laughed. "Instead of soup?"

"Gross!" Matt said, giggling, too. "No. For on the fire escape. For different kinds of birds. You can get them at the bird food store." He'd gotten that much out of the Leah, it seemed, or maybe they'd been searching on the internet. "I feel bad," Matt continued. "The sparrows are picking on him, and that kind of bird really likes the worms. Please, Dad? You can take the money out of my piggy bank if you don't have enough."

"Save your money. Leah called me at work." Part of Leah's charm as a babysitter was her willingness to help Steve with little surprises like these. "I picked some up on the way home. I used to buy those things for your mom," Steve added. "She kept a bird feeder at our old house . . ."

How long had it been since he'd mentioned Sharon to Matt? He couldn't remember. "But you'll wash your hands after you've finished eating them."

"Ew, Dad!" protested Matt, and the moment passed.

After supper, they made a big deal of pouring dried mealworms into the feeder on the fire escape. The sun set behind the overcast sky, staining the clouds in uncertain shades of orange and violet. Later, the tide of Matt's fever rose up again, and made bath time more of a battle than it ought to have been. Matt was fretful when Steve tucked him into bed, spitting and pretending to gag at the taste of his medicine. Steve wanted to growl with frustration when the third pill skittered under the bed, and had to take a long, deep breath to stop grinding his teeth. He dragged his hands back through his hair, all too conscious of the shadow-slim figure waiting on the fire escape. . .

It was story time.

Matt wanted "The Juniper Tree," or, as he called it, "The one where the bird drops things on the stepmother's head."

Steve shook his head. "That one's too long," he said. "I'm tired. You're tired. How about Goldilocks?"

"I hate Goldilocks," said Matt. He crossed his arms across his thin chest, glaring, stubborn. "I want the one with the bird."

Steve knew that look, that mood. Matt was underfed and overtired, winding himself up for a battle, and if Steve kept protesting, there was going to be a knock-down, drag-out shouting match. Matt knew how to stick to his guns; he'd be perfectly happy yelling, "The bird! The bird!" at the top of his lungs for an hour if it got him his way. Just because he was sick didn't mean he was an angel. He could be as obnoxious as any kid. Steve supposed if he were a better father, he'd stick to his guns and give Matt a good, life-lesson here, but he was impatient, and caved in with bad grace.

Usually, The Juniper Tree was one of their favorites. There was so much to talk about: trickery, decapitation, and cannibalism, not to mention their usual debate over the physics of a songbird carrying a millstone. Not tonight. Steve skimmed over the dialogue, touched on only the barest bones of the story and buried the rest with a swift goodnight kiss on Matt's flushed cheek.

"Sweet dreams," Steve said, an order rather than a wish. "I love you."

He barely waited for Matt's sulky expression to smooth away before he rose and crossed to the window.

She was there, waiting, as he'd known she would be. The weather was changing. It was no longer bitterly cold on the fire escape, and though it wasn't raining at the moment, a storm hung heavily in the sky overhead. The air, though fresh, was charged with tension and offered no relief for Steve's aching head. Conversely, the junkie looked better than he had ever seen her. She was still thin, but had lost that brittle, desperate look, now appearing supple rather than starved. She had taken time to comb her fair hair, and her skin was smooth, unblemished and almost translucent. She seemed filled with her own radiance, though that might have been a trick of the night.

"Tell me a story," she said.

Steve felt his shoulders tense, as though knotted together. "Not tonight," he said. He'd wanted to see her, needed to see her, and what kind of world was it, that this was what he sought for a measure of sanity? "I'm so burnt after wrestling my temper and Matt's tantrums, I don't think I have the energy. Can't we just talk?"

He wanted to hear her voice, an adult conversation. Somewhere in the distance, thunder rumbled, and his pulse throbbed in response. He could feel the question hanging between them, and ran his hand across his eyes in weariness.

"Just a small one," she said softly, the flicker of a smile passing across her face like lightning. "Goldilocks is fine with me."

He'd guessed she listened to him through the window some nights, but hearing it confessed like that, knowing for certain, felt worse than intrusion. His jaw clenched. He was angry. A surge all at once. Bad day gone worse.

"There was a line at the coffee place this morning," he said. "And I spilled half of it trying not to be late for work. All down the front of my suit, and I couldn't focus at work without the caffeine. Boss gave me one of those looks. Then to come home and have to deal with Matt . . ."

"Please," she said.

The word was polite enough, but he thought he heard impatience in her tone, and so refused to bend. He didn't know where the anger came from, but it was in full force now. Who was she? Out of all the souls in the city, why had she chosen him? She gave nothing, took everything.

Tomorrow, he'd apologize, but he was done tonight. No more. Normally, he was so cautious in front of her, careful not to give away too much, and yet here he'd thrown out Matt's name twice in the same minute, flinging small talk at her just to watch her flinch.

"We're living check to check as it is," Steve said. "I can't afford to slip up and lose this job. We'll wind up on the street, and no insurance."

"A story," she said. "A story first, before you go . . . a true one."

He pulled the corners of his mouth up in a grim mockery of a smile. "You know, I think I should just call it an early night and go to bed. Tomorrow, maybe. Night."

"Steven," she said. "Steven, I need . . ." Had he given her his name? He must have, though he couldn't remember when. He had no idea what to call her, and was too angry even to guess.

"Night," he repeated, neither good nor bad, promising nothing at all. He closed the window, feeling a spiteful satisfaction at the flash of anger in her eyes as he closed the curtain, knowing all the while that it was unfair, and probably cruel of him. He was in no mood to care. . He went off to bed with misery for company, but lay awake a long time, unable to rest while his mind churned over anger and guilt, a sick, hot sludge of unpleasant emotion that melded at some point with an ugly dream of Matt's birds stabbing at each other in a fierce, bloody battle over a crooked nest.

In the small hours just before dawn, Matt's fever spiked, and Steve found him retching and gasping on the floor outside the bathroom, unable to catch his breath and shaking with chills. Matt didn't even resist when Steve bundled him into a blanket and threw him into the car, even though he hated the hospital and everything it represented.

Steve drove like a madman all the way, and spent the day pacing the antiseptic-smelling halls in his pajamas, raincoat, and slippers. And all the while, the doctors ran test after test to see whether it was the old cancer, a reaction to the medicine, or some new demon, twisting through Matt's fragile body, trying to break it from within.

Matt had no resistance any more. The drugs they gave him made him sleep, and the nurses sent Steve home to take a shower and change his clothes. There was nothing he could do, they said, but wait, and see what the test results showed in the morning.

The weather had changed while he was inside the hospital. The storm was gone, and in its place, a vast and shifting fog seemed to have swallowed the world. It was as though he and his car were the only things left on the planet. Familiar streets looked strange. Buildings were no more than indistinct shadows, looming almost into view, and skulking away again when he turned to look them full on. The car's headlights barely cut through the gloom, and Steve drove home at twenty miles an hour, afraid of hitting something.

By the time he got home, he had grown used to the nothingness and isolation. The bright lights in the lobby made everything seem surreal by comparison. He chalked it up to his own weariness. His whole body was a grinding exhaustion, which a shower did little to alleviate. He pulled on clean clothes and heated and ate some leftover soup without any real, conscious thought. They had a cot waiting for him in Matt's room at the hospital, and his plan was to bring a few of Matt's favorite toys and books back with him. But when he closed his eyes to rest them for a moment, and then opened them and found himself standing at the window to the fire escape in Matt's room, he wasn't surprised.

She was waiting.

He had known she would be.

"No more games," he said. "I can't stay. Matt's in the hospital. He needs me. I should never have let you --"

He choked on the words. It was one thing to suspect she had been using Matt as bait for nothing more than a handful of fairytales. It was another to say the words aloud.

"I can cure him." She had no such reticence. She stood taller than he had ever seen her, her black coat changed for one of grey. It made her look even more sparrow-like. Though the fog was all around them and the air was dead calm, the clothes she wore and the strands of her hair moved as if touched by some otherworldly wind. Her eyes burned like the hidden stars; her lips were nearly as red as blood. She was beautiful, terrible and as untouchable as the fog itself. "For a price."

"What?" Steve said. "What price? I'll pay it." He was too tired to be angry. Too worried to be careful.

"Yourself," she replied. "If you swear to come away with me, to live with me and tell me stories always. To be mine, and mine alone," she said. "For that, I will use my magic. I will cure him."

"You want us to go with you so I can tell you stories?" he asked, feeling slow and stupid. There had to be a catch to it. It couldn't be this easy.

"Not the child," the sparrowjunkie answered. "Just you. It's you I need, Steven. Without you, I will fade away again. Worse than what you first saw of me. I will die."

"Why?" he asked.

"You believe," she said.

He blinked. His eyelids felt like sandpaper, scraping against his eyes. Believe. He did -- yes. He believed in the stories, believed in her magic. Was that what had been feeding her? Was that her addiction? Had she been haunting him simply because he believed in the stories he told? Was that what she needed?

"All right," said Steve. He heard the words almost before he'd even realized he'd spoken them. There really was no other choice. He did believe, and believing, knew her promise was a better chance for Matt than any combination of drugs and doctors.

"My life for his. I can agree to that."

It would leave Matt an orphan, alone in an unfamiliar city, but it was better than dying. It had to be. "You'll cure him? He'll be healthy, once and for all?"

"This I swear," she said. She held out her hand. The soft pad at the tip of each finger had been pierced by something. She was bleeding -- a slow, red trickle against her white skin.

"You won't hurt him," Steve said. His own hand was extended, but he hesitated, inches separating their fingertips.

"He will take no harm from me," she promised. "But you will never speak to him or touch him again. You may look upon him, from a distance," she said, granting a lone concession. "But he will never know you. All your stories, all your love, will belong to me."

"Yes," said Steve. "Alright. I promise." He touched her then, palm to palm, their fingertips aligned. Her skin was cold as ice, but her blood burned. He drew a long, hissing breath. It felt as though hot wires had been thrust into his bones His arm jerked and twisted. The nerves leapt under his skin. She leaned forward, touched her lips to his. They were soft, cool, and unexpectedly sweet. Like the clasp of her hand, the kiss burned, but Steve did not pull back.

In the end, she was the one who let go.

"Tomorrow then," she said, and smiled, beautiful and terrible. "You may bring him home, and say farewell. I will come for you at nightfall."

She left, dissolving into the fog.

Steve stood, his eyes glued to the white-painted metal of the fire escape where something bright lay waiting. He scooped it up into his aching hand, blood and meat and feathers, a sad, silent thing. He glanced up, remembering Matt's story about the nest, and the birds fighting for it. Yes, there --the nest. It, too, was silent. For all he could tell, it was empty. He looked down at the broken thing in his hand.

"A bluebird," he said, to no one but himself. "The sparrows must have killed it."

Matt was insanely healthy from the moment he woke at the hospital, full of energy. He ate every bite of his breakfast, as though he'd been waiting all his life for lukewarm pancakes, turkey sausage, and a fruit cup. He was still thin, but with good color, and clearly in excellent spirits, charming the doctors and nurses alike with a seemingly endless round of knock-knock jokes. Matt didn't understand half of them, but he had memorized them and loved making people laugh.

There was obviously no reason to worry any more on Matt's account, but it was late afternoon before the hospital let them go. Steve had expected it to take some time for the hospital to believe the results of their own tests. He had expected to be annoyed by the delay, but wasn't really. In the hospital, he and Matt had unlimited time together. They watched the TV, and wore out a box of crayons and a coloring book.

Steve hadn't slept on the cot in Matt's room after all -- just watched all night as his son slept -- and he thought he could pinpoint the exact moment when the junkie's spell had worked on Matt. Just as the cloudy sky had begun to lighten outside the window, in that fading moment between night and day, Matt had rolled over in his sleep and suddenly begun to breathe deeply and easily, as though a giant hand had been lifted from his chest.

Like the Emperor, thought Steve, when he heard the nightingale sing.

They were home in time for dinner: spaghetti and meatballs. The sauce was from a jar, but that was how Matt liked it, and Steve had been too dazzled by his smile, his laughter, to find any fault with the menu.

Steve had thought it would be hard, this last day with Matt, but he simply lost himself in it, taking each moment as a gift, without letting his mind dwell on the future. At least until he called Leah, arranged for her to come early the next morning, in time for breakfast, so that Matt wouldn't have to wake up alone and frightened. Hanging up the phone, he found himself staring at the palm of his hand, where the agreement he'd made last night had left only the faintest of scars -- a sparkling trail that reminded him of snail slime rather than fairy dust.

He stared at his own hand for a long, lonely moment, unmoving, while Matt rattled and bounced in the next room, sounding like an elephant juggling freight trains. The rush of relief was worn away; there was only crushing exhaustion. How long had it been since he had last slept? It felt like months. He heard the thunder of Matt's feet, running, and lifted his own head an instant before he was tackled full-on, by a cannonball hug.

"Dad," said Matt, breathless from running. Running! "Dad. Dad! Can we watch a movie before bed?"

This was definitely not on the good-parenting list, but clearly Matt had homed in on the fact that today the rules were for other people. "Dad, can we?"

And Steve, knowing himself for a coward, smiled and nodded.

He reached out and ran a hand over Matt's hair, and pretended to be a strict disciplinarian, pretended he was going to be there tomorrow. "After your bath," he said.

They had a bath, with bubbles, and they had a tooth brushing race. Matt got to wear his own pajamas again, and he leapt almost his whole body length to land sprawling and happy on the couch. They watched the movie, and had popcorn, because Matt was hungry for it. Matt ate two bowls and stayed awake through the whole movie, but as much as he wanted to, Steve couldn't delay bedtime forever.

It was almost midnight, long past when Matt should have been in bed.

It was story time.

"What'll it be?" asked Steve, settling in with the customary unopened book on his lap. He felt giddy, almost drunk with happiness every time Matt laughed, or bounced, or made some idiotic joke. There had been an infinite number of fart noises included in the evening's entertainment. "How about The Juniper Tree? The long version?"

His back was deliberately turned toward the window, but he was all too aware of the presence of the junkie on the other side. Her shadow cut across the room, sharp as a knife.

"How 'bout I tell you a story, Dad?" asked Matt. He was smiling. Bright and beautiful. "I got a story for you! It's called Pandora's Ducks."

"Pandora's Ducks?" said Steve. "That's a new one on me. Where did you hear this story?"

"In the hospital," said Matt. "Not this time. The first time, when Mom died. A nurse read it to me from a book. But I still remember." The day or the story, he didn't specify. "At least, I remember the good parts."

Steve swallowed hard and nodded. "Lay it on me, kiddo," he said.

"Once upon a time," Matt began, beaming. "There was a lady named Pandora, and she was in charge of all the ducks in the world. She was supposed to keep them in this big box, but they kept on quacking night and day, all the time. The noise gave her a headache. So she opened up the box and all the ducks flew out everywhere, except one duck. She shut the box, and kept the one duck, and it didn't quack so much all by itself. The end."

Steve laughed. "That's a good one," he said. He remembered the story of Pandora. She'd lost everything, except hope. That had been the thing in the box. Hope. All at once, he reached out and caught his son in a hug, fierce and tight. Matt held on, too, an uncharacteristic embrace. Steve shook his head, his eyes burning with unshed tears. It was all over. He couldn't stand it. How could he leave Matt?

How could he not leave, if the price for staying was Matt's health?

Matt was ready to end the hug. Steve closed his eyes, pressed a kiss to the top of his head before he let go. "I love you, Matt," he said. "Don't you ever forget that, okay?"

"Okay, Dad," said Matt. His eyes shifted, glanced at something over Steve's shoulder, widened. "Dad --"

The window exploded into a thousand shards of broken glass. The safety bars creaked and collapsed inwards. The lights in the room flickered and died, and the night air rushed in with the sound of beating wings. Steve crushed Matt to him, shielding his son from the blast with his own body. Turning his head, he saw the junkie, dressed all in white, standing on the windowsill.

"Come away, Steven," she said. There was no need to shout. Her musical, mysterious voice seemed connected directly to his muscles. He was on his feet before he knew it. He stood, yes, but he stood between her and Matt. He guessed from the way her eyes flickered between them that this was not what she had expected.

She said, "It is time to go."

"Dad?" said Matt.

Steve could feel her will working on him. She was strong in her power, her magic. She was beautiful, and irresistible. And yet, he could also feel Matt's hand in his and somehow, somehow, he resisted.

"You gave me your oath," said the junkie. "Your stories, your love. Do not pretend you have forgotten. I kept my part of the bargain."

"Dad," said Matt again, more urgently. "Daddy?"

Steve looked down and saw that small, scared, face looking up at him. A piece of glass from the window had caught Matt just above the eyebrow, and the cut was bleeding, a small trickle running down the side of his face.

Steve knelt down, and managed a broken smile. Carefully he reached out and rubbed his thumb across the cut on Matt's brow. It came away with a glint of gold and crimson, smearing the blood away. He could see the cut; it was not as deep as he'd feared.

"Just needs a Band-Aid," he said, and his smile of reassurance felt faded but genuine. "You'll be okay."

"Don't go, Daddy," whispered Matt. His hands on Steve's shirt were white-knuckled.

"Steven," said the junkie. "It is time. Would you have me take back the gift I gave?"

"No," Steve said. "No, you don't have to do that."

He gave Matt a last smile, though it hurt to do so. He wanted to howl and rage and weep. He wanted to pick Matt up and run somewhere beyond the junkie's reach.

"Can't we reach some new bargain?" Steve asked. "Isn't there some way--"

"No," she said. Sharp as a slap. "Remember what was said. Remember what was promised." She tried to make him rise, but could not. Not while he was holding on to Matt.

"I'll go of my own free will, or not at all," Steve said. He thought she flinched. She clearly did not like being denied.

"You leave my Daddy alone!" shouted Matt. He would have launched himself at the junkie, but Steve caught him up and held tight.

The junkie used her magic to try and make him stand, and although Steve felt her power clutch and shudder in his arms and legs, she could not move him.

"Dad," whispered Matt. "I love you."

Steve smiled, and rested his forehead lightly against Matt's. "I love you, too," he said.

"Now, Steven," said the junkie. Steve's head swung around, and if he could have, he would have glared holes right through that slim, white-clad figure.

"Keep your promise," she said. "Come away with me." Her voice had gone soft, coaxing, sweet, with the first hint of springtime in it. She held out her hand, and her fingertips still shone with the glistening residue from their oathtaking. "Come away."

Steve closed his eyes and drew a deep, slow breath, filling himself with the smell of that night. The smell of cold metal on the breeze, the remnants of spaghetti sauce and popcorn from the kitchen, Matt's shampooed hair. Gently, still cradling Matt to his heart, Steve rose under his own power, this time.

"I did promise." He shifted his grip, tightened his hands around Matt's shoulders, ready to say something more, to defy her, to dare her to try and take Matt from him.

Then he stopped.

The air was cool, but his hands burned. Steve looked at them. The fingers that had been marked with the junkie's blood were newly stained . . .

He'd used that hand to wipe Matt's bleeding face, and it seemed to him the blood had turned a strange color on his fingertips, something sun-tinged and luminous.

Steve looked up again, met the junkie's eyes.

"You promised not to harm him," he said.

The junkie said nothing, frozen in place. Time seemed to stand still, but he could feel his heart racing, pounding until his whole body shook with it.

"You promised," said Steve, and his arm wrapped around Matt's shoulders and drew him close. "You gave your oath that no harm would come to my son because of you."

But it was she who had broken the glass with her magic. The copper scent of Matt's blood, like the glimmer of dawn outside the window, stained the air.

"You gave your word," he said again. "And you broke it."

"So I did," she said matter-of-factly. Afterwards, he never could be certain whether the light he saw in her eyes at that moment was a smile, or only the reflection of the streetlamp off her tears. "So. I did."

She stepped away from the window and onto the fire escape.

The breeze there was stronger, blowing the clouds out of the sky. It tossed and pulled at her clothing, her fair hair, and for a moment only, she stood there, watching Steve with Matt in the circle of his arms.

Steve had the fleeting impression of her beautiful, pale face, and the flying tail of her long, white coat. Then she was gone, flown away, blown apart on the wind.

Beyond the last of the clouds, the sky was growing light, and from the nest on the fire escape just above them came birdsong.

And Matt, in his fuzzy, footie pajamas, with his hair sticking up at all angles, was grinning from ear to ear. Despite the broken glass, despite the pain, the bloodstains and the tearstains, he said: "Hey, Dad, look! Bluebirds at the feeder!

Steve nodded, and tightened his hold around Matt's thin shoulders: "I guess the sparrows decided to leave well enough alone."

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