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Black Dreams

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A secret is a strange thing.

There are three kinds of secrets. One is the sort everyone knows about, the sort you need at least two people for. One to keep it. One to never know it. The second is a harder kind of secret: one you keep from yourself. Every day, thousands of confessions are kept from their would-be confessors, none of these people knowing that their never-admitted secrets boil down to three words: I am afraid.

Sarah Manning lived with every sort of secret.

Her first secret involved her mother – her birth mother. Amelia Manning was a familiar stranger, a woman Sarah had known for only a few weeks but who knew the things Sarah never said out loud. Amelia’s employment was mysterious. Though Amelia was a wanderer on the run, she never lacked for money. Despite this fact, she had never been stable enough, safe enough, to bring up a child. But she came to find the daughter she had carried, fifteen years later, in a ramshackle house in Henrietta, Virginia. When she found her daughter living in a house packed to the rafters with magic, Amelia did not bother with surprise. Like goes with like, after all.

The second morning that Amelia woke at 300 Fox Way, she found Sarah standing above her in the small white guest room. The morning sun made them both glow like angels, which was the better part of a lie already. Amelia’s face was smeared with blood and blue petals.

“I was just dreaming of the day you were born,” Amelia said.

She wiped the blood on her forehead to show Sarah that there was no wound beneath it. The petals snared in the blood were shaped like tiny stars. Sarah was struck with how sure she was that they had come from Amelia’s mind. She’d never been more sure of anything.

The world gaped and stretched, suddenly infinite.

Sarah said, “You can do what I do, can’t you?”

“Don’t tell anyone,” her birth mother said. “It’s dangerous.”

That was the first secret.

The second secret was carefully concealed. Sarah did not say it. Sarah did not think it. She never put lyrics to the second secret, the one she kept from herself.

But it still played in the background.

And then there was this: a year later, Sarah dreaming about the raven logo on the sweater of a girl she was destined to kill or fall in love with. The stitches became feathers and the raven flapped up from the patch covering Rachel’s heart, cawing a warning. Ravens swarmed the air, swooping again and again, beaks and claws tugging at Sarah’s hair. In the dream, Sarah raised her arms to fend off the screeching birds, but her arms had only a dream strength and the claws of the birds shredded her sleeves as easily as butter. She could barely see Rachel now, through the flurry of black wings. She was ghostly and fading, invisible eyes accusing, You did this.

The birds parted, wheeling up into the grey sky, and Sarah was alone, tattered and bedraggled. On the cobblestones before her crouched a baby bird, feathers askew – a raven left behind by the flock. It huddled against the cold air, impossibly small. Sarah approached warily; the tiny raven didn’t move away. She scooped it up, its crabbed claws scraping her fingers gently as it shuffled into the bowl of her cupped palms. The bird was light but shockingly real, her skin and feathers humid against Sarah’s palms. Holding her was frightening and lovely; she was such a small, tenuous little life, her pulse tapping rapidly against Sarah’s skin. The raven tipped her huge head back and goggled at Sarah, beak cracked open. Sarah looked away, but she could still feel the feathers, sparse and strange, the warm thing cupped in her hands.

Then she woke up.

When she opened her eyes, the little raven lay curled on one open palm. Dream to reality.

This was her third secret.