You ever have a feeling when you’re asleep and then a supernatural something just lifts you out of unconsciousness? That uncanny sensation that there is something off, not in its place, just feels wrong, and it crawls under your skin until—boom—you’re awake?
Well, I can tell you from experience it’s an awful way to wake up.
Moonlight’s coming through my window, and it throws a huge figure sitting in my desk chair into a dramatic half-light. Big, broad shoulders are turned toward me. Shadow covers the far-side of her face, exaggerating the dips and hollows of her features.
The shadow’s darkness is nothing compared to the black of her feathers, though.
I shiver because I’ve never been face-to-face with the flock’s Alpha, Ojistah Kahwihta, before, let alone in private. She intimidates me even without the magic that holds the flock together under her command. She’s big and menacing and silent, and I know that something is very, very, very wrong for the Alpha to be sitting in my bedroom, but I’m not putting two-and-two together since I just woke up.
I drop my head. “Alpha,” I say…
But I don’t know what else to say. I am human. I’m one of the flock in name only. My loyalty to the Alpha, though, isn’t. I want to belong. I want to be one of hers for real. And I know I’m in trouble.
More silence. I don’t dare look back up—I know that much at least—but the uncertainty and the just-woken-up drowsiness and the bad vibes make me so anxious. I’m quaking in my bed, my legs jittering out of control under the covers. I have no idea if she notices, though.
The Alpha doesn’t speak for the longest time, and the quiet is something I just can’t stand. Eventually, I ask:
“How can I serve you, Alpha?”
Again, she doesn’t speak, but it gets worse.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
I don’t know if she’s tapping the floor with her boot or wrapping her knuckles on the desk, but the tense sounds are the alarm my sleepy brain needs.
Reality slides into place, and all I can think about is how angry I am and how I want to take it back and still… how I’m not really mad at Tsis.
I’m glad my head is bowed. Even in the bleached colors of the moonlight, I want to hide my shame from the Alpha, and I can feel my cheeks flushing up.
I don’t speak. I barely breathe. I clench my hands in the sheets, trying to keep my cool.
“Do you know why I’m here?” The Alpha finally asks.
Her voice is deep—commanding. Her tone just has that resonance that makes you listen, you know?
I’m slow to answer because I feel so guilty. “Yes, Alpha.”
“Explain it to me,” she demands.
I take several deep breaths. My heart’s pounding in my throat with my nerves because I know what I did wrong, but there’s a tiny part of me that wants to minimize it. To make it okay in her eyes. To skate through without damaging my dreams.
“Well… First I want to apologize,” I say. I lift my head. “I wasn’t being responsible and I know I made a mistake.”
The Alpha doesn’t respond, but her brows come down low over her eyes. She readjusts in my desk chair, and I can’t even explain how she does it, but it’s like her whole body gets bigger. The moon shadows’ emphasis doesn’t help.
I gulp. “I was volunteering to watch the fledglings, and Tsis had been bothering me all evening to climb the trees.”
“So?” The Alpha asks.
“Well, she was…” Annoying is accurate, but it doesn’t play well. “She was so, so sad. Like, desperate kind of sad. She was talking to me about her parents and her brothers and sisters and about how she felt so bad being left behind.”
The Alpha raises one eyebrow but still says nothing.
I keep going. “Well, I—uh, I… I told her to quit asking. I didn’t give her permission or anything like that.”
The Alpha squeezes the armrest of my desk chair, and her boot starts tapping on the ground again.
“You know she ran away, right?” I blurt out.
The Alpha nods, but her boot keeps tapping.
I gulp again because I can feel this is going much worse that I ever thought. I know what I did could have gotten me in trouble, but it feels like the Alpha’s way more angry than I ever expected.
I get out of bed and kneel in front of her. I’ve seen fledglings do that when they’re in trouble with the Elders, so I think it can’t hurt.
She doesn’t respond, but being closer to her, literally seeing that boot bouncing off the floor up close, I’m way more nervous than before. I can’t keep my voice from cracking when I speak.
“I noticed she was missing before anyone else did. I alerted the Elder immediately and assisted in the search. I helped find and bring her home, and yes, I did…” I take a huge breath, but I can’t find any courage. “I did make, uh, a mistake. But I kept her safe the whole time!”
The Alpha’s voice is almost a whisper. “Safe?”
“I… Uh, yes. I did everything—”
“No, you didn’t.”
I’m starting to sweat, and it has nothing to do with the summer heat. “Please, Alpha, I just—”
“Stop talking,” she commands.
I shut my mouth. I’m trembling from head to toe, and the uncontrollable movement hurts my kneecaps, but I dare not get up. In fact, I bow even lower.
“Why did you carry a fledgeling—a child who cannot fly, whose precious bones might shatter if she fell—why did you carry her up?”
I think I might have started crying while she’s calling me out, but I start to lose track of the details at this point. I’m so overwhelmed and upset and angry with myself for so many things—like why I thought Tsis could keep our secret, why I thought I could appease the Alpha, and why, why, why I ever risked anything for a silly, spoiled kid who will eventually get everything she wants. My feelings are too big, and I feel so small at the Alpha’s feet, and I don’t know why I tell her, but I do.
“Because I’m sad and desperate and I don’t want to be left behind anymore, either.”
“You are Hollow. Your place is on the ground.”
I’m squeezing every muscle in my body so hard I ache all over, because I can’t bear the truth, but I still somehow say, “I know.”
I regret it. I wish I said something different. That I didn’t let those words break the dream I’d been building, nurturing, and cherishing for all my years. That I let her ‘clip my wings.’ But I did, and I let the feathers go, and I’m ashamed to admit that to you, now, that I was that weak and I really didn’t believe in myself. Not without you there at my side. But it’s the truth.
“Your actions show you don’t,” the Alpha says. She finally lets out a sigh.
Some of the tension leaves the room, but the hair on the back of my neck is still standing. I’m full to the brim with shame and longing, and I can’t let any of it out in front of an Alpha who thinks I need my nose rubbed in the dirt.
“I am so sorry, Alpha. How can I earn forgiveness?”
She makes a sound deep in her throat. “Get up.”
I comply, standing in front of her with my head bowed and my hands clasped together in front of me. I don’t speak.
“Your actions have consequences. I cannot trust your judgement anymore. I forbid you from all fledgeling and child care until you prove you understand the line you crossed. Not to your Elders, but to me. As punishment, you will serve one hundred hours of additional community service. You may coordinate with the Elders at school to document them.”
“Yes, Alpha,” I say, because I’ve already given up.
A hundred more hours is nothing. I’ll be doing community service for the rest of my life, anyway, unless I petition to leave the flock and run away with you like we always daydream about. The number is high, but I’m not fazed.
Then, the Alpha starts tapping her boot again. “There’s more.”
I stay quiet because there’s nothing else for me to do, but my mind is trying to figure out what she’s talking about. Already being face-to-face with the Alpha, it’s hard to imagine what more there could be.
“There have been fewer than thirty births this year. Were you aware?”
I actually don’t know the specific number because even though births are flock-wide events, my parents and I don’t attend them. Humans have no role to play in the tradition since we can’t contribute to the mana the flockmates pool to help the mother through labor. It’s just easier for everyone if we don’t show until the naming ceremony, when the only expectation is to bring food.
What I do know—what everyone is scared about—is that the number keeps dropping. Every year. It means every fledgeling isn’t just loved; they are treasured. Prized. And overprotected.
“Tsis’ parents and the Elder who searched with you that night both urged me to remove you from school,” the Alpha says. “They worry about you being in unsupervised environments of any kind with fledglings.”
I’m not a fan of school or class or homework, but school is literally the only thing left I have in my day outside of moping at home without you and community service. I don’t want to lose school. No matter how boring the current history lectures are.
“I promise I won’t do anything to anyone. I won’t talk to the fledglings. I won’t even go in the same room as them, I—”
“Enough,” the Alpha cuts my babbling off. “I am not kicking you out of school, but I forbid you from participating in any whole-school activities or blended activities. I’ll be alerting the Elders of these new restrictions.”
“Yes, Alpha. Thank you, Alpha.”
The Alpha is quiet for a moment, then her tone drops an octave. “Never waste my time again. Do you understand me, Erikhó:wa?”
I shiver. “Yes, Alpha.”