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Ashes of Childhood in Hearts Carved in Trees

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Hearts carved into trees were for children, and they weren't children.

They'd left childhood behind years ago and continents away in an orphanage fire, and whether innocence went with the fire or before it was something neither of them thought about, not if they wanted to hold onto the parts of them that were still sane.

What she allowed herself to remember—what she could not forget—was empty pages in a book she'd filled. They had spoken another language then.

She might never have known if the one boy who'd never so much as spoken to her before then hadn't taken it that day. He was dark hair and dark eyes, and he moved with the shadows. They whispered about him sometimes, said cruel things and made him into villain of the same darkness, but she understood hiding in the shadows. She would do it herself, book clutched to her as her only refuge from the cruelty of the other children. They were not friends, no one here had friends, but he had never hurt her before he exposed the blank empty pages, stark white against the black cover.

Give that back, she'd screamed. It's special and it's mine and it's for the things I can't tell anyone.

Her words didn't stop him from opening it, not that anyone would have because these kids were all mean, as though losing their parents or being abandoned by them was any reason to hurt others that were the same. The headmaster was nice, once, giving her that book and her special pen, and she'd scribbled in it for months, wanting to fill every page with her dreams and even her nightmares, anything that would help her get through her years here.

The book was empty, though, and she didn't understand that. She stared at it, wanting it to make sense, but it did not change, did not show her the words she swore she'd written, and she looked up at him, wanting him to say he'd switched the books, but he did not.

Somewhere in his darkness, his eyes understood, though, and she saw pity in his expression when he handed the blank pages back to her. She cradled the book in her arms as she had done every day since she got it, but it felt different, hollow, and she threw it away before crawling under her bed for the rest of the day.

She could not sleep. Her mind was full of the things she would have put in her book and could not, and she held her knees up close to her body, shivering though she was not cold.

The book, the boy said, sitting down next to her and holding out a pen like hers. She sat up, reaching for it, needing to know that it was the same, wondering if it was the pen that was the trick and not switching the books.

You knew it was empty, she said, throwing his pen across the room.

He nodded. He lowered his head like maybe he was guilty. It's too dangerous for you to write down the truth of this place. That's why they do it. Take away the words. The pens don't work. They never did. We just thought they did.

She frowned, watching the shadows for a moment and biting her lip. That was the only nice thing they've ever done here. You took that away.

I'm sorry, he said. I know it hurts, losing that, but I didn't—You're the only one they haven't ruined completely. All the others, they have so much hate. You... I heard you sing. No one sings anymore. They took the songs when they took the kindness and the hope.

So you decided to ruin me instead?

No. He held out his hand to her. I know a way out of here.

She did not take his hand, not trusting him enough for that. Why haven't you gone, then?

He swallowed, and she wondered if he was afraid. This time he did take her hand, and his eyes seemed lighter despite the shadows. It was almost bearable when you were still singing. Now it isn't. Now there's nothing left of this place worth saving. I don't know if it will make a difference if it's all burned to the ground or if that's just a good way to make it so they don't look for us until it's too late, but I'm ready.

He held out a box of matches in his other hand, and she snatched it from him, quickly striking one of the matches and setting the empty book on fire.

She gave him her hand this time, scared and excited all at once, eager to follow him, even more eager to see the fire burn it all away.

Hearts carved into trees were for children, and they weren't children.

He would always be the boy who saved her, though, and she would never forget taking his hand and going to freedom. She remembered learning to dance together and blushing in his arms. She remembered hope in the shadows, the shared secrets, and the promises they made to each other years ago.

Even though they were not children any longer, when he carved a heart into a tree for her, when he smiled at her, she could feel like one, not the one she was but the one she would have wanted to be, and she knew that she loved him, as the girl she had been and the woman she was, and they will not last, but the tree would outlive them and speak of this moment long after they were gone.