Taken (Erin Bowman) - By Erin Bowman


TODAY IS THE LAST DAY I will see my brother.

I should be spending these remaining hours with him, but instead I’m in the meadow, watching a crow pick at the carcass of a half-eaten deer. The bird is a filthy thing: slick black feathers, a beak of oiled bone. I could wring its neck if I wanted, sneak up on it and crack its frail frame between my palms before it even heard me coming. It doesn’t matter, though. Crushing the life from the bird’s small body won’t save my brother. Blaine’s been damned since the day he was born.

Just like me. Just like all the boys in Claysoot.

I stand abruptly. The crow, startled by my movement, lifts briskly into the early morning light. I send an arrow after it and miss, mostly on purpose. Truthfully, I’m no better than the crow, scavenging what I can, hoarding any bit of meat that will feed our people. If my black hair were feathers, I might outshine even the bird’s gleaming darkness.

There’s nothing much left of the deer. The corpse is hollowed out, animals having feasted on the belly. A hind leg appears intact, but there are too many flies. I don’t want people getting sick. It’s not worth the risk. Especially not today. The last thing we need on the eve of a Heist is more stress and worry.

I reshoulder my pack and let my feet carry me back toward the forest. My boots know the way, and as their leather soles press against familiar footpaths, I think about Blaine. I wonder what he’s doing right now, if he’s sleeping in, clinging to the remnants of a carefree dream. I would guess not. Too much looms before him. He was still in bed when I left for the woods before dawn, but even then he was muttering in his sleep.

I have only two quail from my morning in the woods, which will be more than enough for lunch. Blaine probably won’t even have an appetite. The Heist tends to do that to people, especially the boy of age. Eighteen is far from a celebrated milestone, and come midnight, Blaine will unwillingly greet his fate. He’ll vanish before our eyes, disappearing the way all the boys do when they turn eighteen, as good as dead. I’m terrified for him, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared senseless myself. Since Blaine turns eighteen at midnight, it means I turn eighteen just three hundred and sixty-four days later.

It was fun to share a birthday when we were younger. Ma gave us what she could: a whittled boat, a woven hat, a metal pail and shovel. We galloped through town and made everything our playground. Sometimes it was the stairs leading up to the Council building, others the tables of the healing Clinic, at least until Carter Grace shooed us away, hands on her waist and curses escaping her lips. Our antics rendered us well-known throughout town. We were the Weathersby brothers, the boys with too much zest for life in such a gray place. That zest didn’t last forever, of course.

You grow up quickly in Claysoot.

By the time I hit the hunting trailhead and make my way from the forest, it is midday. I pass two boys playing near a small fire as their mother hangs laundry on a flimsy line behind their house. One is very young, maybe four or five. The other can’t be older than eight. I smile at the mother as I pass by, and though she attempts to return the gesture, her grimace is less than convincing. She looks aged, beaten down, even though I suspect she is no older than twenty-five. I know it’s because of the boys. I bet not a day goes by that she doesn’t wish they were girls, or at least that one of them was.

I run into Kale outside the Council building. She is playing on the steps, tugging behind her a wooden duck that Blaine and I played with as children. It was a gift from our father, before he was lost. We were both too young to remember the toy being given to us—or even our father, for that matter—but Ma said he carved it himself, whittling the thing from a single piece of wood over the course of three months. The duck is showing signs of age now, a chunk missing from its bill and an uneven chip running the length of its tail. It clunks awkwardly down