We used to watch them fly.
Every night during the summer, my father would take my little brother and me out into the hills behind our house.
"It's a secret," he'd tell us.
"Is it bad?" my brother would ask.
And my father would smile. "No. It's special."
We would make or way up through the tall yellow grass, past the brambles and bushes and over ditches until we came across our watch point. It was just a flattened area, with the hill's gentle slope on one side and a small, cliff-like drop on the other. It was one of the few places in the hills within range of the house, but without any trees obstructing the view to the West. We would all sit there, our legs dangling over the edge, blankets wrapped snugly around us, and wait for the sun to set.
As soon as it had gone below the horizon, as soon as the sky had faded from pink-orange into a pink-blue, they would come. They'd fly up out of the hills in droves. First one, then two, until hundreds of living flames burst onto the scene, burning bright against the sky's dark backdrop.
We could hear them singing.
Not with our ears- our ears could never hear something so beautiful. We could hear them in the back of our heads, right above where neck met skull and somewhere in the middle. Or maybe not. It's hard to tell.
"What are they?" my brother asked once.
"I don't know," my father had said. It was the first time I ever remember hearing him say that. "Things like that- they don't have names. To name something is to make it like us. To name it traps it, ties it to the world of people."
"Makes it real," I said, never taking my eyes of the flames.
He'd shook his head. "Makes it less real. Those up there? They're more real than any of us."
I remember we sat in silence for the rest of the night, waiting until the first bit of dawn edged over the hills. The flames fell back into the hills, as they would do every night. The singing petered out and died, and my father woke us (for by then we'd have fallen asleep), and lead us back home.
I hadn't known my father was a wizard until sometime during high school. I hadn't known my brother was one either. It wasn't as though they made point of it; sometimes strange things happened because they wanted it to. Having grown up with it, I never once thought to ask why the candles in our living room never went out, or how dad always knew who was at the front door. Why Josh could find things, why he always won at cards.
Things happened, and that was that.
"Sorry, hon," my father had told me when I confronted him about it. "It runs in my family. Boys only, I'm afraid."
"But that's not fair! Why shouldn't I be a witch?"
He'd shrugged apologetically and tried to give me a hug. I wriggled away and pouted.
"If it makes you feel any better," he said, "you've got your mom's brain. You'll be smarter than me and Josh put together."
It didn't make me feel better.
I resented them, both of them. I loved them- don't get me wrong- but there was always this nagging feeling in the back of my head. It hid itself well, I hardly ever noticed it, but then Josh would pick numbers correctly out of a drawing a dozen times in a row. Dad would make the chunks of flour in batter smooth out without stirring, and the little nagging voice would make itself heard. It wasn't even what they did that was the problem; it was knowing they did it in a way I never could. They had something extra, and I'd been left out.
When time came for me to go to college, I made sure to get as far away as possible.
"You're mad at us," my father said over the phone.
"Of course not," I said. "I love you."
"So? You're still mad at us." He paused for a moment, speaking to someone on his side of the line. "Josh says he loves you."
"I did not!" I heard Josh yell in the background. "I said quit being a baby and come home!"
"Love you too, Josh."
The people in the hall next to me gave me odd looks, wondering why I was shouting into a pay phone.
"Look, I've got to go, Dad. History's next."
"Be safe, sweetheart," he said. "Come home soon."
I meant to come home, really. Just to visit, maybe, but I fully intended to come back. But things happen; I was offered a job across the state before even finishing my degree. I had friends, I had boyfriends, I had tethers tying me down to reality and keeping me grounded.
"Grounded's a terrible thing to be," my father said when I told him. "If you can't keep your head in the clouds, how will you see what's coming?"
"Sometimes clouds fog your vision," I said, smiling. I liked our word games.
"Through fog shines a beacon of truth."
"And the truth hurts. I gotta go. Give Josh my love."
I hung up before he could answer.
I was in the city, now. Surrounded by a wall of tall buildings that scraped the clouds and filled the sky. Sometimes at night, I would look out the window and see jets flying by, and I would dream of falling fire. Sometimes, I would wake up with the echoes of a half remembered song ringing in my head.
It didn't happen often.
They died together.
My brother had been going to a dance, my father had been driving him. My brother had massive organ damage and a broken neck. My father, it seems, was entirely unharmed from the crash but had died of a heart attack a few minutes after calling the paramedics.
Shock, they told me. Sometimes people just keel over dead.
I nodded and let them think what they liked. I was the only one who knew the truth: after everything, all the magic in the world couldn't save my brother, and my father had died trying.
I did the only thing I could. I went back to the house.
I wept. I slept. I cleaned up the mess they had left behind, and lamented that they'd never be there to make the mess again. I went through their things. I read their notes and journals, marveling how each had changed, yet crying over how much the same they still were. Funeral arrangements were made, but not by me. An aunt on my mother's side was taking care of it, just as she had been the one to take care of my father when my mother had died.
I couldn't sit still. I paced. I cleaned. I scrubbed and polished and dusted and scrubbed again until the house gleamed. Still, I couldn't rest. I had to get out.
So I went to the hills.
It was dark out by the time I reached the watch point. Stars dotted the sky, and the sun had long since gone down. I had no trouble navigating in the dark; the well worn path of my childhood may have been covered in weeds, but, sometimes, the feet can remember trails better than the mind can.
I waited. For ages I waited for the fires to arrive. When they didn't, I cried. I rocked back and forth and cried for them, for my brother, for my father. For the mother I didn't know and for the time I'd wasted away.
In the back of my head there was a sound.
It was small, weak. It was the familiar voiceless song, but now it was twisted and alone. It, too, was crying.
I followed it, I don't know how. Not with my ears, I suppose. Nor with my eyes, but I followed all the same.
I found it at the bottom of a ravine, hidden beneath a leaf. A ball of flame, roughly the size of my palm. It was alone, shivering. Its flame sputtered with every sob.
For a long moment, I did nothing. Then, very slowly, I crept forward. It didn't run.
Gently, I guided it into my hand.
It hovered just above my skin, close enough to share its warmth, but far enough away not to burn. Tentatively, I held out my other hand and made to pet it. Flame licked my hand without singing me. The ball began to thrum. Not a song, not a cry, but a purr.
With nothing else to do, I headed home.
Summer is almost over, now, and I am still at the house. I don't think I will be leaving any time soon.
The funerals were yesterday. Family I hadn't known I had came to offer me their condolences. All of them were from my mother's side. We'd been unable to find anyone for my father, save for some friends at work and the men he went drinking with.
None of them had the gift my father and brother shared. I could see it in the way they held themselves, in the way their eyes took in light. None of them could hear my new friend's singing, even from the next room over.
My friend is kept in the dark. The light, I find, makes him shrink. I don't know if that is because it hurts him, or if it reminds him of his own lost family. At night, I turn out the lights in the living room and read by the light he gives. We seem to enjoy each other's company, even if we cannot speak. He sings. Sometimes I sing back. I can tell he likes it by the way he purrs.
Sometimes when I sleep, I can still hear the singing of a hundred flames. I can still see them cascading down as dawn crawled in, and I can still hear my father's voice, telling us stories and explaining the world. I can still feel the weight of my little brother as he leaned against my side.
My friend and I, we are both the last of our kinds.