I'm standing on the side of the road. At my feet, the land drops sharply down to the straggly bed of the Santa Cruz, winding its way past the base of the hill. I can see for miles. The desert stretches out from here like the sea. The wind is strong. I hook my hands into the pockets of my jacket and spread my arms. I am a hawk, my weight supported by the air that surrounds me. If I take this step, I'm sure I can fly.

Mom yells at me to step back. "Chiara, you're too close. It's scaring me." She's standing back against the road cut, as far from the edge as she can get. Her camera is hanging around her neck, her lens case is slung over her shoulder. It was her idea to take our Saturday walk up here. She wanted some afternoon shots from the top of the hill, but she's never liked heights, never wanted to see Chuck or I get too close to the precipice.

I stay suspended for a few more heartbeats, then sink back into my heels and bring my arms to my sides. I pretend to stumble as I take my hands out of my pockets—just because. Mom lets out a noise, the sharp, squeaky cry of a crow.

Laughing, I walk toward her, thinking I will give her a hug. She grabs my elbow. Even though I'm five inches taller than she is, her intensity scares me. She glares at me and gives me a hard shake. Then she lets go and starts back down the hill without me.

At home, I close myself in my room. I have to finish these applications or I'll miss the deadlines. I've been putting them off. The stack of them form a pile on my desk, reminding me every day that life-after-graduation is almost here. Even though I know I should go to PCC in Tucson, since it's cheaper, I've got a couple of applications from four year colleges out of state. I'd love to go to California, or maybe Oregon. It'd be so cool to live near the coast.

I turn on my laptop, trying to figure out what I will say in my essay. Hello, my name is Chiara Langdon. Please let me come to your school. If you don't, I'll be stuck in this trailer park, in the middle of the desert, working at Sav-a-Buck for the rest of my life. Help!

Okay, maybe not the most well thought out argument.

I try to remember what Ms. Beatty said in English composition sophomore year. Be clear, be specific, be smart. I wish Ms. Beatty was here to write my applications for me.

The tree in the front yard is filled with yellow-headed black birds. They're talking so loud, I think they're filling each other in on current events: who saw the rattlesnake cross the road, whose turn it is to watch out for Red Tail. I walk to the window for a consultation. Maybe they have some ideas for my essay.

I have to crane my head to see them. Can't lean too hard or this rickety little cardboard house might just fall apart, like Mom's been threatening it would do since Chuck and I were little.

"Dinner!" Mom's voice cuts through the house, slicing my silence in two. I don't know why she needs to yell like that, especially now that it's just the two of us. Chuck's in the army, deployed somewhere Iraq. He can't hear her now.

I wash my hands at the kitchen sink and grab a glass. I pause at the stove, inhaling the scent of my mom's cooking. The creamy, spicy smell of her stroganoff makes my mouth water.

She sets the table and adjusts the window shade. I serve us both and then take my spot on her left. Our fingers reach for each other and hold on for just a second. Our own little voiceless prayer.

I'm in the middle of my third bite when I realize she hasn't moved. She's staring out the window with her fork suspended in mid air, her mouth gaping open like a baby bird. Behind the silhouette of the tree, the sun has set, leaving a golden border on the clouds.


My back pushes against the rising hillside. My hands want to pull her away from the edge, but she's leaning forward, letting the wind support her. Her hands are tucked in the pockets of her jacket and her arms are spread. She is an eagle, ready to soar. She just has to take that one step.

Beyond her flapping ponytail, I can see the desert spread like an ocean, lapping against the mountains in the distance. The world beyond her slight body is endless.

I call out to her, my voice squeaky and raw from the wind. A crow's voice. "Chiara! That's too close, honey. You're scaring me."

She stays there, suspended for a moment, then settles back into her heels and brings her arms down to her sides. She stumbles as she takes her hands out of her pockets. My breath stops. I take a step, knowing I won't be able to catch her.

She laughs and comes jogging toward me. "Just kidding, Mom."

With a short huff, I'm breathing again and I'm tempted to take her to the edge and toss her off myself. I grab her elbow and look up at her. She is four or five inches taller than me now, but I know how to get my point across. She isn't smiling anymore.

I throw her arm away from me and begin the walk down the mountain. Her feet scrape the gravel behind me.

At home, Chiara goes to her room to work on college applications. She knows that deadlines are coming up but, like me, she's never been one to complete her work early. Still, I know she will get them done. She wants out of here, and college is the way she can do it.

The one thing her dad did for her, the one thing I asked. College funds for both kids. I knew I could support them, but I could never afford college tuition on what I make at the store.

I don't understand why Chuck joined the army instead of going to school. Said he wanted to see the world. Well, he's seeing it now. From the inside of a bunker in a desert hotter than this one. If I think about him too much, my baby boy, I'll just crawl into bed and pull the covers up, and I'll never come out until he's home.

I sharpen my chef's knife. The one expensive thing in my kitchen of dollar-store pots and pans. I slice the meat in thin strips, sear them and add them to the sauted mushrooms and onions, with a little wine and Worcestershire. I'm making her favorite meal. My mother's Stroganoff.

She scared ten years off my life today and I'm making her favorite dish. I'm such a wimp.

The mesquite tree in the front yard is filled with yellow-headed blackbirds. They are all talking at once, sharing the daily gossip. I open the window, scattering birds like seed, until they settle again on the branches of the tree that spreads almost the length of my house; a double-wide I'd only planned on renting for a few months—ten years ago. I hold my hands up, framing the birds, the lowering sun behind them.

I hear Chiara moving around in her room. Our little cardboard house doesn't allow for much privacy. Her window rattles as she opens it. She wants to hear the news, too. Maybe she's hoping the birds will give her some advice on her application essay.

She thinks I don't know that she has forms in there from UCLA and OSU. She should go to the community college in Tucson before transferring to a four-year school, to save money, but I know she won't. She won't even stay in southern Arizona. She'll fly away from here as fast as her wings will carry her.

I don't really blame her.

Glancing at the recipe, I add sour cream and a pinch of nutmeg, put the noodles on to boil. I know the ingredients, but I like the company of Mom's spidery handwriting slanting across the card.

"Dinner!" My voice slices through the silence of the house. I can't seem to control the volume. Half expecting Chiara and Chuck to race down the hall and fight for a spot at the table, my voice rises above the sound that's no longer there.

Chiara washes her hands at the kitchen sink and grabs a glass of water. She hesitates in front of the stove, its color the sunset gold of the '70s. She breathes in the steam from the skillet. I see the whiff of contentment that crosses her face. My fingers itch for my camera, but if I retrieve it from the bookshelf, I'll miss the moment of opportunity.

This is my favorite time of day. Chiara and I sit together at the little round table, the only one small enough to fit in our undersized kitchen. She digs in, humming a little as she savors her first bite.

I glance out the window in time to see the sun descend beyond the horizon, falling off the edge of the earth. The mesquite is a silhouette. The birds are nestled in its branches. Waiting for morning, and the chance to fly.