Some children remember farther back than others, Dag knows. There are girls in her orphanage that tell stories about parents they where taken from when they were babies, and she envies them, even though the stories aren't all happy. Dag does not remember. She doesn't have memories or photos or even names. She is rootless, a sapling willow tree bundled up in fabric and offered for sale, sheltered and nourished but never belonging anywhere.
There are other things Dag knows. She gets looked at funny for voicing them, sometimes, and so she keeps her mouth shut and her thoughts to herself. That's another thing she knows: she's too smart for her own good. Many of the other girls believe that good things are waiting for them, parents, homes, rooms that can be locked from the inside if they want to be alone. Dag has long since realized that, for nine kids out of ten, that is a pipe dream. Maybe if their orphanage weren't in the poorest neighborhood in town; maybe if it wasn't rotting away over their heads so much that the people who can actually afford taking in children they didn't birth wouldn't scrunch their noses at the mere sight of the building. Maybe then they had a chance.
Fate is a lottery. All of them who ended up here? They've already lost.
Cheedo arrives on the day before Easter, the year Dag turns thirteen. She looks small and afraid, eleven years old, her eyes brimming with tears, her clothes neat and clean and like they were bought just for her. Her parents died the week before; car accident on the way home from a night out bowling, they took their last breath in a wreck down on main street while Cheedo was sleeping peacefully in her bed. When she woke the next morning, her world had caved in over her head.
Some of that Dag hears in the mess hall. Some of that, she extrapolates. Some if it, she just knows. She sits down next to Cheedo on the second day, takes her hand, wipes away the tears that brim in her eyes with the other.
“I envy you,” she says, and Cheedo's head snaps up like she's been slapped.
“How can you say that?” She swats Dag's hands away, glares at her incredulously.
Dag merely shrugs. “Because it's true. You know where you came from. That you were loved. It's hell to lose that. But it's also hell to never have had it in the first place.”
For a moment, Cheedo just stares, disbelief marring her face. Dag is well aware that wasn't the right thing to say; the knowledge rarely manages to keep her from saying what's on her mind. There's no one in the world who cares for her beyond professional responsibility. Alienating people isn't much of a risk. She's got nothing to lose by speaking out.
But then, the most wondrous thing happens: Cheedo doesn't curse her out and run away. She smiles, and she says thank you, and she inches closer to curl up in Dag's arms.
From that day forward, they are inseparable. Wherever Dag goes, Cheedo follows, and vice versa. They can play for hours without exchanging a single word. There are nights when Dag listens to Cheedo talk about her parents and her school and her home and Aunty Giddy next door from nightfall to sunup, living vicariously. No one understands what knits them together so close, least of all Dag, but that doesn't matter. Cheedo is her family, her best friend, her everything. She loses track of where she ends and Cheedo begins. She feels complete in places she previously didn't even know something had been missing.
They spend years in this suspended state. The world around them lacks color, seems insubstantial. Dag never wants it to end.
But, as is her curse, she knows that it cannot last.
Dag is the first to leave, since she is older. There is nothing to prevent it; the law she has stopped being a child, and Cheedo has not, so one of them has to stay and the other has to go out in the world and try to survive on her own.
And while she's smart and pretty and knows things she cannot explain, Dag is also weird and scares people, makes them uncomfortable. School never interested her much, boring all around, not even worth the effort needed to excel at things that came to her all too easily. As a result, there are no credentials or test results to prove her intelligence. She finds and loses a few jobs as waitress or shop girl. For a few months, she manages to hold an apartment, before she loses that too. She writes Cheedo every other day, sends the letters whenever she's come by some money, but she never calls.
Joe picks her off the street a few weeks after her nineteenth birthday. She knows he's bad news. Every fiber of her being protests and revolts when he smiles at her with no honesty and promises her the world, but she hasn't eaten in six days and it's cold and she's developed a cough that won't go away on its own. Wherever he's going to take her, it's better than dying on the street, she figures.
She couldn't be more wrong.
For as long as she can remember, Dag has never taken solace in hope. She doesn't fall into that trap while she's at the Citadel, either. It's a pretty name for an ugly business, and even thinking about Cheedo here would make Dag feel like soiling her, so she tries to ban every thought of her. Not to forget – never that. She writes her letters, still, but they become a diary more than one side of an imagined conversation.
But, as it turns out, Cheedo doesn't her forget either.
Dag sees her across the street when she looks out of the barred windows, and thinks she's dreaming. She hears her voice in the crowd at night, and thinks it's wishful thinking.
Until, one day, on the rare occasion of being allowed out of the Citadel for a heavily monitored shopping trip, she looks up from the rack of clothes she hates but knows Joe will like, and there's Cheedo. She's smiling like Christmas morning, and she takes Dag's hand, one finger laid to her lip. Dag nods in understanding; listen, don't talk. In whispered words, barely audible, Cheedo tells her about a plan she's cooked up, and she reassures her, begs her to hang in just a little while longer.
Dag memorizes her every word, the sound of her voice, every line in her face, so different and yet still the same.
They're sitting cross-legged on a bed in a cheap hotel room, both still owning little more than the clothes on their back, but they're free and together. Cheedo talks and talks – about other people from the orphanage and the two years she spent there alone, about getting out, saving up what money she could and making connections and collecting every letter Dag sent for clues as to her whereabouts. About the future, mysterious dreamland that seems so much brighter again now. About Dag, with a small, low voice, and how much she's missed her. The sun is beginning to set when she leans over, puts her hand on Dag's face and brushes a thumb up and down her cheek, kisses her gently.
It feels like a benediction and an absolution, surprising and inevitable at once. It feels like home. They don't do anything else that night, or the night after, or the one after that.
Two days after her rescue, Dag wakes to a powerful wave of nausea, trip-falls out of bed and storms right into the bathroom to throw up. She sits back after she's done, fingers splayed over her belly. She knows. She wishes she didn't.
Many a conversation is had about the future of that baby, in the following days. Cheedo keeps telling her that they'd do what Dag wants, that she'd be with her on whatever she decides, but for the first time in her life Dag is just utterly clueless as to what lies ahead. She imagines a life with the child, and one without, and she can't pick what she'd prefer. It's a part of Joe, a reminder. But it's also a part of herself, and she wouldn't be able to really forget anyway.
She stands in the mirror, shirt raised to expose her stomach. Cheedo comes up behind her, rises up on her tiptoes to rest her head on Dag's shoulders, reaches around her to run her palm over Dag's skin.
Suddenly, like it's never been a question at all, Dag knows what she wants.
The baby is born in a rural town thousands of miles away from Joe and his horrors, at home, with no one but Cheedo and a midwife to help her through the delivery. Cheedo had been worried about that; Dag had smiled and told her not to be, it would be alright. And it is – four hours after her water broke, the first cry of a healthy baby girl echoes through the small, sparsely furnished apartment.
They name her after Cheedo's mother. They never tell her about her father, make up a story about a passerby that agreed to give them the child they always wanted and never so much as told them his name. She is loved, and she is cared for, and she's making them happier than they ever imagined they could be.
She plays in the shadow of a willow tree that her mother planted the day after she was born.