Death visited her when she was only a girl. Death tore off the roof and burst the boards of the floor and a whole room was swallowed up, gone. Down went Mama, went Papa, went the round wooden table and all of the chairs. Down went the china teapot that had belonged to her grandmother and her great-grandmother and all the grandmothers before her. Down, the soup and the brown bread and the forks and spoons and knives and the scraps of meat Pietro had dropped under the table for the dogs. The dogs were gone, too. When the dust settled, there were only three things left in what had been the warmest, fullest room of all. There was Wanda. There was Pietro. And there was death.
Death was long and sleek and gleamed like oil, even covered as it was in plaster crumbs and splintered wood. Death smelled like gunpowder and iron. And death was heavy, so heavy she could feel what remained of the floor warping towards it, pulling her down. She clawed wildly, grasping at nails and broken planks, but she would have rolled down the floor and fallen like everything else if Pietro hadn't reached out and caught her, snatched her back from the edge. Wanda squeezed her eyes shut and leaned back against his bony chest. She waited for the explosion, the blast of hot metal and fire. Waited and waited.
But none came.
For two days and two nights, death slept beside her. She held her breath until her lungs ached, then watched the dust tremble when she gasped for air. Her eyes burned with the tears she could not, would not, dared not cry. Pietro held himself motionless behind her, still in a way that was wrong and terrifying. She would have thought him dead if not for his arm wrapped tight around her shoulders, his rabbit heart beating in time with hers. Bombs were still falling somewhere, shaking the building every time, nudging them just a little closer to death. The emergency sirens screamed and screamed, but no one came to rescue them. On the morning of the third day, Wanda looked her death in the face and whispered, now or never.
She does not remember how they escaped from the rubble, only that death was too slow for them and they outran it. Left the ruined town behind and kept running and running. Never looked back.
The forest was full of thorns and the cries of strange birds, the wispy tails of foxes passing through the underbrush. She doesn't know how long they stayed there; it seems impossible now that it could have been more than days, a few weeks at most. But at the time it felt like ages, like home was just a dream and they would never live anywhere else but the forest. They drank from the streams and ate wild berries, taking it in turns to be the first to eat, the one to check for poison. By night they slept under blankets of leaves, tucked into the ground like fairy children.
Wanda had not been wearing shoes when the bombs began to fall. How she missed them now, how she wished for them as she stumbled through the forest. Shiny black leather with red bows on the straps—a special gift from the mother she would never see again. She did not cry when the path gashed her feet, did not cry when she slipped on the moss or tripped on the gnarled roots of trees, but as she walked she cried silently for those shoes.
After the first day, Pietro forced his shoes into her hands, balling up his fists and refusing to take them back.
I can't, she said again and again, and then she began to cry in earnest. She cried for her lost mother and for her lost shoes, for her own bloody feet and for Pietro's, which would be cut and battered just the same if she took his shoes from him. And she cried because she could not stand, not even in Pietro's borrowed shoes.
Tomorrow, then, he said, lacing the shoes on his own feet. He carried her on his back all the second day, and again the next morning he brought her his shoes. And when his feet were ragged she carried him, and so they went until the end, until the shoes wore out or else they left the forest, or whatever else she has forgotten.
Of the years on the street, what is there to tell? Only hunger and cold, shoplifted bread and weak black tea that did little to fend off the chill in her bones. In those days, they were constantly lying, to shopkeepers, to policemen, to each other. No, that's not quite right; Wanda never lied to Pietro, and she thinks she would have recognized the shape of his untruths. But there were many true things they chose to keep secret. They took what they could and ate what they could and never, ever said they were hungry. Always tried to make the other take the last piece of cheese, the dark bitter coffee at the bottom of the cup. At night they slept back to back, and they never questioned where the food came from, where the money came from, what had been done to get it. Pietro used to wear one track jacket inside of another and jog in place to stay warm. Wanda wore the second pair of pants under her dresses, skirts hanging down over shiny black nylon. Hunched against the cold, she felt like one of the shabby, humpbacked witches from her mother's stories. If only. The things she would do, if she had such power. She used to dream of toast with jam and tea with sugar, of soft mattresses and heated rooms. Of money gotten honestly, with only the pains of a day's fair labor. Of no good person going hungry again. She knew better, of course. Fairness was a tale for children; some people would never be rescued. She was old enough to know the missiles launched over her home had been meant and failed to save them. What foolishness, burning a country to set it free. That, more than anything, she could not forgive—to have that power and use it carelessly, wastefully. Wanda would never waste anything she was given.
Wanda learned many things when she was not in school. How to palm coins and pick pockets, how to spit insults in seven languages, how to sleep safely in cities that always seemed to be at war. How to push to the front of a crowd, how to scream so she could not be ignored, and how to fade into alleys when the police arrived in force. She learned the smell of tear gas and how to channel pain into a fury so righteous it burned. Running away, she understood, but she learned, too, when to stand her ground. Sometimes dangerous men will make you an offer. Maybe sometimes, you will even say yes.
She was promised a room in a castle and gifts beyond imagining. She expected a cost. Wanda was not surprised by the drugs or the restraints or the unearthly glow of the scepter. Was not surprised by the nightmares. Was not surprised by the pain. Sometimes she could not tell whether she was hallucinating or not. It didn't bother her as much as it should have. Either she could lift bricks with her mind or she couldn't—what should it matter if it was real? If it was a dream, it was not a bad one. Even the fears of others—the doctors, the scientists, the guards—did not trouble her once she realized what they were. No one else's nightmares could scare her; she had spat in the face of death too early and too often to trouble herself with such stories.
It was harder for Pietro. He moved too quickly, or some days, not at all. It was as though he knew only of running and a tense, almost vibrating stillness, having forgotten how to walk. The corners of his eyes were fever-pink, and he was restless, always restless. The guards let her visit him one hour each day, and that was the worst part, the one thing Wanda could never accept. Twenty-three hours a day, Pietro was without her, with no one to hold the glass of water when his hands shook, no one to smooth the hair back from his eyes, no one to remind him why it would all be worthwhile. No one.
Pietro improved in time. Grew stronger in body than she was. But still, this is her one regret in all of it, that for the worst days he was alone.
The Baron wanted to train them separately. Wanda laughed at the idea. Already the guards were afraid of her, wary even when her eyes were natural and cold. If Pietro ran, she would run. If she was to meditate, Pietro would, too. No one tried to stop her, although she heard one whisper that it was a preposterous waste of time.
A waste of time. How ridiculous. As though only the quick needed their bodies, only the powerful needed their minds. So Wanda ran. She ran the woodland trails and choked on the thin air of the mountains. Ran until her legs ached. Ran until her chest burned. Ran until the soles of her shoes wore thin and blistered her heels, and still she kept running. No matter how fast she ran, Pietro was always waiting at the edge of the forest, ready to announce he had passed her three times, four times, five. You're slow, little sister. He used to say it with a smirk, but Wanda understood it was not a boast but a promise: wherever she could go, he was already there beside her.
Wanda has her own room now, with a real window and no guards. This morning, as always, she rose under the gray mountain sky. As always, she knelt on the stone floor and closed her eyes, waiting for Pietro to join her in meditation. And as always, she passed several minutes in silence, calming her breath and channeling her magic, before a wind lifted her hair and Pietro’s knees brushed her own. So fast, and yet forever late, her brother.
Just like always, but she knew when she woke that today would be different. Special. Knew before she saw the battle in the forest or heard the Baron's command. Wanda dressed herself in black and straightened the collar of Pietro's jacket. Hung the earrings from her ears and let Pietro tie her bootlaces in double knots that would never unravel. She could taste the magic crackling on her tongue and feel it rising in her palms, warming her against the cold. Today, they will fight, and she is ready. Wanda stares out at the mountain, waiting. Takes Pietro's hand in hers and squeezes once.
There is a blast in the forest. The rest of her life begins.