THERE WAS something wrong with Jack.
He should be dead. Any other fifteen-year-old boy would be. Dead as the dunes he marched across. Dead as the bleach-white splinters of glass that cracked under his boots in the sand.
But not Jack.
Jack was only dead on the inside, a thought that made him take a deep breath to see if it was still true, expanding the hollow in his chest as far as he could and holding it. He listened . . .
Only his thought, echoing: dead, dead, dead.
He exhaled and squinted at the horizon, tugging the hood of his cloak to shade his eyes from the baleful sun. Nothing showed yet in the distant blur except the rumor of foothills, so he slid down the face of the dune that had been his perch and trudged on.
A sudden hot wind screamed across the wasteland and heaved against him. It grabbed his cloak and shook it out like a war banner. He threw his arm up in front of his eyes until the gust expired, then broke into a steady run.
He ran alongside a road made of flashing glass and quartz that had been etched into existence long ago by a firestorm that crossed the entire desert in one day, dividing it in two, east from west. He was careful to avoid stepping on it, hopping over any stray chunks larger than his fist. Heat shimmered above the road, ghosting into the air. During the day, the surface could melt a horse’s hooves into glue, but at night it snaked across the desert, glittering white in the moonlight, guiding travelers who had the courage to cross the waste.
He ran until nightfall. The sun sagged beneath the world, slung itself around, and lurched into the air again. Still, he never stopped to eat or drink, or to answer the needs of a normal boy’s body.
At dusk the next day he spotted a man and a woman arguing beside the road. They paced, dark shapes against a livid sky. The woman made sharp chopping gestures with her hand, and Jack could tell by her shaking voice that she was weeping. He slowed so as not to frighten them.
When the woman saw him, she drew a veil over her mouth and nose and grasped the reins of her donkey tighter. The man stared. Two sacks the size of wine bottles hung from his fists. As Jack drew closer he could see the man’s body tense, read the questions forming in his wind-scarred face.
“I thought you were a sandwight,” the man said.
Jack didn’t respond. It was the same wherever he went. It wasn’t just that he walked through the desert, alone. It was the way he looked, especially in the vague dimness of twilight. How is that boy’s skin so pale? What’s wrong with his eyes? He had heard all of these things before, and even if they didn’t speak the words, he knew they were thinking them.
“Accursed,” someone whispered. A boy frowned at him from the donkey, a protective arm around his younger sister. Their mother shushed them.
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