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   Chapter 5 Break-in

Clockwork and Cinders By m i c h e l l e p a k Characters: 12895

Updated: 2018-01-20 23:48

Silence follows my knock. Not a creak from my old home as the wind howls behind my ears, blowing wisps of hair out of my ponytail. The rain mists into a drizzle. If I could feel, I figure it would be cold and strong, like a slash of ocean current.

Pitter patter. Rain puddles in my hands and drips through my fingers. I squeeze MN-9, the droid dying my glassy palm. And then the sky lets loose another sweep of rain. It almost knocks me off my feet. A gust of wind sloshes mud onto the path and into my shoes. MN-9 gives another plaintitive cry, like the sound of cogs scraping against each other. I knock again, harder this time.

With a jerk of my head, I glimpse my broken hand. The hairline crack grown into a fracture, shards fit together like puzzle pieces. A triangle here, a squiggle there. Through the cracks, cogs glint in the broken moonlight. Thick and brass, I can hear them clicking even from here. I curl that hand at my side, flicking my eyes up from the exposed joints in my fingers. Another moment paces. Squeezing MN-9, I step back, imaging the sweet smell of rain and earth, the feel of it against human skin. Above, as I tilt my head, someone lights a candle in an upper window. A flicker of yellow against the blue pane, a glimmer of gold. The door creaks open and I yank my head back, despite the shriek behind my ears.

The words are all there, practiced since I heard of my freedom those weeks ago. I'd imagined it so clearly, though differently every time. Ms. Leville would open the door and she'd see me and she'd know. I might say Hello, I might just wave. Maybe I'd say something dramatic. 'It's me', or just, 'I'm home.' But she'd smile, take my arm, and help me into the house. Sometimes I imagined her saying she'd miss me, even though she took as much care as the others to hid me, at least she'd smile at me occasionally or let me have a taste of cookie before the others.

But it isn't Ms. Leville that opens the door. It's Clara.

And I'd like to say my heart plunges, but I don't have a heart. I have a pump. I'd like to say something about my stomach flip-flopping or my blood running cold, something to make you feel the way I feel, but I don't have any of that either. I have cogs.

Cogs and memories. Memories that spill in front of my eyes in a spiral of broken images and textures. The circus, she said. Do you want to see the circus, Luciel? Me, shivering with excitement, knowing that Clara cared about me, hoping maybe she didn't hate me after all. A real sister. Her humming, soft and sweet, haunting even now, so many years later. The tails of her waist coat, flapping like brown tail feathers as she jumped roots and stamped over brittle, dead branches.

"Clara, " I say, the words coming out all flat with my music-box voice. My fingers squeeze MN-9 so tightly I can hear the click of my own joints in my ears. She regards me coolly, eying me up and down. The guards were right, Clara is beautiful. Her features are lean, her cheekbones so defined you can see them through her skin. She is pale, her eyes the darkest shade of brown I've ever seen. Everything about her is slim and small and curvy. Her loose hair hangs over her shoulder, so black it reminds me of spilled ink. Her face flushes red as she looks me over, her hands clenching the delicate material of her frock.

I lift my hand in a wave. Maybe I should yell at her. Ask her why she did that to me all those years ago, but I know. Just in the way she looks at me, I know nothing has changed. And yet. My mind races, a cloud of something like hope making me crack my mouth open to say something else, something smarter, something to show her I deserve to be a part of the family.

But before I choke out even a word, she drops her lit lantern and slams the door.

Tick tock. Tick tock. As I stand there, broken and soaking in the gusting rain, I can't help but stare at the door. So prim and white, with its silver ring of a knocker glittering in the night. The house, such a big thing, standing alone in the green hills. Nothing has changed. Five years has passed and the only thing that has changed here, is me.

MN-9 has gone limp in my palm. Rain splatters his rusty parts and sprays in my face. I have to get him inside and clean away the rust before any more damage can be done. His pieces clang against my porcelain skin, and I back away from the door with my usual jerky steps. My breath leaves me in ragged chirps.

This is the only place I know here. In this dark, I'm a foreigner even to my own planet. Another step back, and I take stock. Two stories. A sloping blue roof with thick shingles, and on the house's side, a jutting balcony. Above that a chimney.

No more smoke. There's a light in the window just below. I twist my face up, wiping droplets off my glassy eyes. Only a thread of gold, but if I can see it with my hazy vision, then it must be unmistakable. MN-9 and me, we look out for each other. If I have to break into the house of the person who sold me off to keep him safe, well, I'll pretend I've done worse.

As a child, Clara used to escape from the balcony by jumping into the Oaks. This house has always been nestled in the trees, close to the town, but not close enough that gossip spreads so easily about the Chengs. There's no guard, because no one dares come near. One wrong move and the skies could open up and a blast of red light could kill every Elizrian in the vicinity. Folk tale, I know, now. There are no invading ships in orbit, whose here is here. Elizria is too small to even warrant warships. They send their armies and diplomats, and they leave them there to take over while they burn and pillage a bigger target. The thought is both relieving and yet saddening somehow, knowing how big the galaxy is, and how small we are.

I stumble toward the tree closest to the balcony, mud slogging down my gait into short, staggering steps. It is as dignified as the house, all dark wood and thick bark. I feel a tingling behind my pump, a clench of longing in my human soul. The spicy smell of forest and greenery is only a distant musing now, memories.

No matter.

I lift my eyes to a low-hanging branch, leaves swishing in the wind. Stuffing MN-9 into a pocket, even though my clothes are soaked through, I grasp for the branch with my slippery grip and climb.

I'll be frank, a porcelain shell and clockwork innards make a lot of functions more complic

ated. That, or impossible. Most of the time, the best you can do is sit in your cage and stare out at the darkening sky, that or the men and ladies ogling you. Climbing trees with hands that can hardly open and close and a shell of skin so slippery it might as well be covered in grease, I don't think I have to explain what a bad idea that all is, the recipe for complete and utter disaster.

But with some quick thinking, I figure out a process. One hand to keep me steady, one to find the next branch. The word is a vision of gray and black, spiky limbs lashing out like tendrils, waving under my feet. I wish I could close my eyes, squeeze them shut and forget the images of me lying shattered at the roots, a chunk of arm here, a sliver of face there, cogs lodged in the soft bark of the Oaks like shards of glass.

Despite the images and the tickle of fear and the grinding ticks of my pump, I clamber up. Movement is unsteady on the whipping branches, and my suede shoes find little purchase, but there it is ahead. I swivel my head. The balcony, with its curly iron rails the daintiest shade of blue. I edge toward it, a branch moaning under my weight. My hands slip on the wood. Pump grinding, I hold my head up to the clouds and try not to think at all. Half a step. Half another step.The balcony wavers, my vision blurred from the rain. Droplets collect on my lashes, my eyes. It all looks like a blur of motion, darkness, and moonlight.

I draw myself up on the tips of my toes, almost toppling over from the movement itself. Sometimes, I forget how to move in this form. My arms yearn to stretch, my legs to run. I crouch low on my squeaky knee-joints, and then I bounce.

I'd like to say, that despite my frame, I'm graceful. I'm not. At least the swan princess got to be a swan. Me, I'm shrieking like a musical duck as I grab for the rail. My fingers slam against the iron posts, porcelain crunching and busting into slivers. I curl them down, curl them down so hard my breathing isn't a chirp but a squeal.

And then I hang. One hand on the balcony, another clanging my side as it sways with the swells of wind and gravity themselves. MN-9 moans. I scrabble up, the rail scraping my stomach with a sound like cutlery scratching fine China. Painful, even to my ears. I hit the smooth concrete and roll on my hip.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. A book sits on a stained red wood table. I pick it up and thunk it into the door. Nothing. The storm eases again. It's if the clouds have exhausted themselves, but still it doesn't stop. Wind whips my ponytail in my face, velvet ribbon slapping my cheeks with a thwup-thwup-thwup like bird wings. I pick up the book and hurl it again, suddenly so angry, so hurt I could cry.

I'm human now, the conference said so. I don't want an apology, just a word would suffice. Any word. "Hello" maybe; "You've come back" would be a start.

Silence. The storm is more welcoming than this house, but I have no choice but to press on, to force myself into a home no one wants me in. I have never had choices as long as I can remember, and for the most part, that's been okay.

"You can't kill a machine that easy, " I whisper to MN-9 who purrs in response. Purrs, soft and low. I'm already calculating. Thinking of how to get up onto the roof without busting all my parts in a shower of metal and glass. A second passes, then two. I push the balcony table against the rail with all my might and climb again. This time, I slip. My knee busts open.

I punch the shards back into place and stand, the scraping of gears even louder now with pieces of my shell gone. One hand clutching the edge of the eave with my white fingertips. Climbing is a desperate, painful scrabble. Shingles bruise my porcelaine and leave hairline fractures. My heart grinds with a click-click-click! I dig my fingers into the slick surface, imagine how soft the rotten roof should be under my fingertips, how paper-thin, and with one final heave I fling myself up onto the slatted, angled surface.

I'm sent sliding before I sink my slippered, glass feet into the wood. There's nowhere else to go, for me, for my dying bot. I raise my head, focusing on the brick chimney extending up before me, cutting through the cap of black clouds. There's no more smoke. It's my only hope.

Hands jerked to either side for balance, I wobble across the top of the roof, clearing it in a a few short steps. I grip the chimney in both hands, all sensation lost to my porcelian fingertips, wishing I could feel the texture of the brick against my fingers, the slap of rain on my face. Climbing is relatively out of the question, so, clicking my eyes shut, I step back on the precipice. Arms raised, I take a wobbly leap, catch the crumbling edge, and bring myself inside with a few desperate claws of my stiff arms.

I don't let myself peek in first, just fall. The blackness is thick and unyielding, pressing in as I grasp wildly on either side for a handhold. Puffs of soot fluff around my falling body, then my fingertips are driven into a crack. It takes seconds for a prick of starlight to reveal the blackened brick around me, the ground wobbling toward me just beneath my cracked feet, the bleary edges of my eyes.

I hit the ground, duck, and roll out of the fireplace in a heap of hissing mechanical parts. MN-9 makes a pained sound, a mechanized yelp. I pat him on his circular head and he sighs, the two of us staring out at the room that we used to know best.

I let my eyes, again, fall shut. Better to imagine it with my senses. The crackle of yellow flame licking a cast-iron grate, the hickory smell of smoke eating through smoke before twisting through the chimney. The papery, soft blue walls and the sagging shelves of yellow-paged book on the walls. The sigh of the straight-back velveteen chair under my weight. I remember loving that chair, because of how big it made me feel. For a moment, remembering the fluff of it, that smoky smell of the library, the comforting presence of the books, my mouth cracks open as if to smile.

It's my stepmother's scream that jerks me out of the memory and into the smelless, textureless place around me that was once my home. My heart, instead of sinking, only clicks faster at her pointy, pale face, and at those eyes of hers, horribly wide.

For the first time tonight, I wonder with a shiver of fear what will become of me in this new life.

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