Callous eyes are watching me. Judging me. Stealing the breath from my lungs. 

“Go ahead, little bird. Read us your prayers,” Clarion whispers in the silent room, her dark hair illuminated with an evil ambiance in the dying blaze of our fireplace. She stares at me with a gaze of iron, impenetrably cold. 

I swallow hard. Prayer is my least favorite part of the day. Work at the orphanage may be grueling, but it is nothing compared to the sickening melodies of my companions as the dark settles over us, a slumbering giant that accompanies the ridicule and taunting. 

Besides, I have my own prayer time before I go to bed, in the safety of my own blackened mattress, away from the horde of cruel misfits. 

“Any day now. Or do you want me to fetch Mrs. Maudeline?” 

Clarion’s voice brings me back into the present and I blink, my hands shaking as I grip a piece of paper. It has been stained with blood and tears, remnants of my first days here, and even though I know my prayer by heart, the sight of my messy handwriting has a calming effect on me. Back then, things were twice as hard, so I must be grateful about where I am now. 

“Dear Lord,” I begin, continuing to tremble under Clarion’s daggered grin. “Thank you for keeping breath in my body. You are mighty and merciful, and Your grace knows no bounds. You are also infinitely generous, so I might have a single, tiny request for You.”

A chorus of snickers rises from my audience. I ignore them. 

“Wings. I’m praying that You provide me with a pair of magnificent wings, like the kind You gave to the faeries, not the birds. And inky black too, so that I may never forget where I came from. As soft as kindness to the touch and sewn with warmth and love—” The snickering has elevated to full blown laughter. I fight off the tears stinging in the corner of my eyes as I add a new word at the end, against my better judgment. “And forgiveness.”

Clarion begins slow clapping, stalking next to me. I face her, my tears long gone. “Well done, little bird. That wasn’t so hard, was it? You’ve given us the gift of entertainment. You should cherish that.” 

Her words are dripping with poisonous sarcasm and I can no longer contain myself, rage boiling inside me. My anger has been festering for five years, suspended in a blackhole of silence within myself to keep the peace. But as the other children file out of the dingy room, heading to their own sleeping quarters, I finally muster enough courage to spit in Clarion’s face. Then I ball my hands into fists, tightening them to make a final motion. She might be twice my age and double my size, but I was born both a fighter and a dreamer—

I frown. A thought occurs to me as I glare at Clarion. Her eyes are wide with shock, like she cannot comprehend what I’ve done to her, and I notice fright flicker across her expression. How could she, the eldest of us all with a penchant for making my life miserable, possibly feel fear at this moment?

I glance behind her, to where a crowd has gathered around the door. Callous eyes on both of us now, waiting patiently for the victor to emerge, like a pack of wolves observing a rival challenge their leader. In all of their countenances, I see trepidation. 

The only thing they know how to do is survive, I realize with a start. There are no dreamers except for me. And yet, a soul needs both to flourish. One cannot exist without the other, as my mother once told me so long ago.

Then Clarion smiles. Her crooked teeth gleam wickedly in the dimming light, and she leans closer to me, odor as rancid as dead meat. “You’re just like the rest of us, Alouette. Child of nobody. The only wings God will be giving you are clipped ones, same as us.”

“No, Clarion,” I say, shaking my head. “Wings mean freedom. So does dreaming.”

Sophia Kunkel is a literature-lovin’ high school senior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a passion for writing. She is Marketing Director of The Young Writers Initiative, an editor for her school newspaper, and a co-owner of a popular writing tips account on Instagram. Besides writing, she also enjoys hanging out with her mini goldendoodle, Bielka (the troublemaker)!