The wings sprouted as gnarled nubs of bone and nascent feather seeds, scratching and poking their way to the surface of the skin, piercing each subcutaneous layer of flesh like a tender and ruthless plant.
Arriving with them was the unrelenting pain that woke Jess up, who with a shaking arm reached back to feel two small fern-like protrusions, rupturing still curled through the skin, emitting a mixed fluid of pus and blood.
“Oh, god,” Jess said as she lay still for a moment in the bed. It had worked. The potion, the poison, the magic, whatever it was—it had worked. It was dark still, and she was alone except for her cat, who leapt onto a dresser as she tore the blanket off her body and got up. She went to the bathroom and turned the light on, taking a moment to breath in an attempt to dispel the fear gathering within her about to burst like a geyser within her psyche. Belly breaths, she had been told in the yoga class she once took. After peeling her sweat-drenched shirt off, she twisted and she saw them in the mirror: two blood-stained infantile wings, covered in micro-feathers, lodged firmly into her shoulder blades. She could already feel their strength and depth, and imagined their roots woven deeply into her back muscles. Somewhere in there, she realized as she examined her back under the fluorescent light, the base of the fern-like wings were fused to her bones. She could feel it as she moved; she could see it as she watched her back twitch and contort under the light.
“I have to get rid of them,” Jess said to her cat, who was bumping against her leg with its soft fur. She had to get it under control before Steve came back from his conference in California. She returned to the bedroom and dressed quickly, trying to ignore the pain on her back as she slipped a sweater on, wincing since it pained her anyway, avoiding the thought that she should make the bed before she left in case Steve returned early.
On her way to the door, Jess paused in front of the fridge, distracted by a picture taped there. Why it caught her eye in that moment she did not know, but she stared at the image, frowning, taking it from the door and bringing it close to her face. She and Steve were sitting in the patio of Jess’s favorite restaurant, La Cosecha, back when they were dating. Steve had not liked it much, and she had not pressed to go back.
You’re such an idiot, a voice said.
Jess sighed, and let the picture flutter to the ground.
At a stoplight Jess glanced with dilated eyes at her cell phone, which had slid from her purse and now sat precariously on the edge of the passenger seat. Thoughts of Steve flitted through her mind. The light turned green and she continued driving.
The nurse who checked her in at the hospital wore lavender glittered reading glasses, which she pushed down her nose as she turned to ask, “Name and date?”
Jess saw only the glitter in the form of large blobs refracting light. She placed a hand on the counter and tried to focus on the nurse’s face.
The image shook. “Name and date?”
“Jess Davis. January 2, 1980.” Jess blinked, and she saw clearly again. Her sight was changing. Things seemed more distinct to her; minute details of dust and debris on the counter interested her.
“What brings you in, dear?”
“My back,” Jess answered. With eyes closed, she turned, trying to ignore her heart which throbbed chaotically under her breast, trying to brace herself for the nurse’s reaction. For some reason, Jess was afraid the nurse would turn her away, call it all a sick joke. I deserve this, of course, Jess thought. It was her fault that she let that woman sit with her at the café and put that stuff into her coffee.
The nurse stepped from her stool and came around. She lifted Jess’s sweater. “Holy shit,” the nurse said. “Oh…excuse me.” She gestured for Jess to take a seat and picked up a phone immediately, speaking in hushed tones with her mouth covered by her hand, her eyes darting back and forth as she looked down at the paperwork in front of her.
Jess crossed her arms and walked to the waiting area. She sat down on a chair, on its very edge, folding forward onto her arms, cupping her face in her hands. The nurse was still talking on the phone. A stack of magazines drew her attention, and she reached forward and took one, opening it, feeling momentarily comforted by the thick and glossy pages. But when she read the title of the article she opened to—Organizing in 10 Minutes or Less—she flung the magazine across the room, watching it as it sailed over the heads of others waiting and smacked into the wall.
The other people, though few, looked at her briefly and then away, trying to ignore and dissolve the incident with denial.
You’re insane, a voice in her head echoed.
Jess covered her face with her fingers, searching for meaning at her outburst. Was it that she felt inadequate? That she couldn’t please anyone, though she tried with all her might? That women’s magazines did not help but hindered her understanding of herself? Is that why the woman had come to her at the café?
“Jess Davis?” A new nurse was approaching.
She would never untangle this mess, she thought gloomily as she stood, her head spinning. “Yes.”
“Come this way,” the nurse said. In the examining room she asked, “There’s something on your back, I hear?” She was staring at the notes of the first nurse with a deep frown on her face.
Jess felt queasy as she stared at the patterns of daisies on the woman’s scrubs. Or were they rainbows? Or umbrellas? They floated and moved every time she tried to concentrate her gaze on them. Pain undulated up and down her back and radiated throughout her limbs and head like electrical currents, drowning out the words of the nurse.
“You’re in pain, are you?” The nurse was standing over her, looking down at her, brow dark and crunched, the edges of her short blond pixie lit up by the fluorescent light.
“Just look at them, and tell me what it is,” Jess muttered, raising her hand limply. You know what they are, the voice said. Get rid of them before anyone else sees.
The nurse walked around the bed and lifted up the shirt. There was a gasp and a scuffling of feet as the nurse stood back. “They do look like—”
“Like wings,” Jess said, tears crowding her eyes. She blinked them away and looked up at the nurse. “It wouldn’t be so bad to have wings, would it?” She was fighting the inner voice, the one telling her to get rid of them, that they were awful, that it was awful to have anything like that in this world.
“Um, whatever it is…we’ll take care of it,” the nurse said. She helped Jess out of her clothes and into a hospital gown. “The doctor is coming.”
The waiting seemed forever. Jess slid until she was resting on her side, staring in front of her at the blank black screen of the computer, listening to her breathing, feeling the wings pulse in her back as they birthed themselves. Her purse vibrated. She pushed herself up and reached down to the chair where it sat, and took out her cell phone.
Steve had sent a text: Conference went well. Be home in a couple hours. Taking transit, no need to pick me up.
Jess breathed sharply: ok, at hospital checking some pain. sorry about the bed, didn’t have time to make it.
The phone beeped immediately in response. Pain? What kind of pain? I told you to get a ball for work. Didn’t massage help? Someone drove you, I hope?
Of course he would be angry, Jess thought with a sigh as she dropped the cell phone back into her purse and lay down. Her chest hurt now, and when she touched it, and traced the muscles across it, she realized they were different. Bigger, somehow. Not from some voluptuous bosom—no, she had never had that—but from the muscles themselves. She held out her arm, noticing that her veins had begun to pop out, fascinating lines of blue and green crisscrossing all over in a complicated map.
“Something strange happening here, I hear?” A man with the build and spring of a marathon runner sat down to read the computer.
“Yes,” Jess responded, feeling herself wilt under his fresh, energetic scrutiny.
“Let me take a look,” he said. There was first silence and then a clearing of the throat after he looked. “All right, I see what everyone’s talking about,” he said, coming back around, his pale face pressed into a frown. “It’s going to be all right, Ms. Davis.”
She saw him say these words, but heard nothing. She closed her eyes.
Jess heard hushed voices upon waking. She opened her crusted eyes and saw black-filled windows. She lay on her stomach, her neck wrenched to the side, her cheek pressed to a pillow, sensations of heaviness spreading all over her back, announcing the existence of the dreaded wings within her brain. But why should they be dreaded, she thought miserably, turning to the voice talking beside her.
“Jess?” It was Steve. “Are you in pain?”
“Yes,” she said with a gargle.
“You’re on pain medicine. It’s not working?” It sounded as if his teeth clattered at the end of every phrase, a machine too tightly wound for its own functioning. “Jess? Jess?”
The voice kept on, and she recognized other voices with it, of her father and mother, and images of colored words and letters floated on dark navy waters, swirling and playing in her mind’s canvas. She would paint it all someday, if she ever found time and space for painting again.
“She’s doing too much. Perhaps part-time would be better for her,” her father was saying in a low, thick voice, one that Jess had always imagined suited him perfectly for his job as an attorney. A voice ready to bellow and scare down anyone opposing him.
“She hasn’t mentioned anything negative about it to me,” Steve said tersely. “She was fine. Always was fine, as far as I could see.”
“Living in the city. It isn’t good, you know. She would take well to living in a small town, like ours,” continued her father.
Jess kept her eyes closed but felt a mixture of venom and fire, as far as she could tell, swirling in her abdomen, causing it to twitch. Her wings shuddered enough to shake the bed.
“Oh, just look how horrendous they look!” she heard her mother cry out, her clinging voice covering up the men’s. “We must get them off! With her petite frame, she could be hurt!”
“It’s all taken care of,” Steve said, back at Jess’s side.
Pain like a latticework of barbed wire spread ruthlessly across her body, causing her to shift and moan even though she wanted to remain silent. Her eyes fluttered open, despite the effort to keep them shut, to keep out the images of the voices floating about her in that small room.
“Jess?” Steve said again, coming so close to her face she could feel his breath.
She kept her eyes shut until a nurse came in and adjusted her medicine, after which she drifted again into sleep.
It was night, and it was quiet when she awoke again. Jess was still lying on her stomach, her neck still twisted, her cheek still on the pillow. She heard the humming and clicking and dripping of the machines around her; and she saw the naked silhouette of trees, their crisp black lines contrasting with the moonlight behind them. She could see the flakes of shimmering snow under the moonlight, covering the ground like shards of mica, a rock she had been fascinated with as a child.
Jess had met Steve on a similar raw morning, when there had been flakes of freezing snow on the ground, their glimmer, she recalled, caused by the light of the street lamp in front of The Raven, the local coffee shop where she had worked. The wind chill had been far below zero, as it usually was when the flakes sparkled drily like that. At the time she had been a painter, doing freelance painting, mostly family portraits. But she was also doing her own work and had even done an exhibit at a local gallery just the week before Steve came in.
It was infatuation at first sight, she would later joke to her friends: he strode in with his leather laptop bag and stood a moment to look at the artwork, turning his strongly-jawed face that seemed infused with purpose, moving his gray eyes carefully, his apparently fit body displaying a simple but clean style of fitted sweater, trouser pants, and leather loafers. She, a wannabe bohemian who lived with five other roommates, disbeliever of shaving and wearing conventional deodorant, was attracted to that ensemble immediately. A moth to flame.
Jess squirmed uncomfortably under the weight of her back and closed her eyes again. It was his serious eyes that did it, and the way they promised security, which she was embarrassed to admit she wanted even though she, an artist, spoke against it; and it was the way he spoke with crisp consonants at the end of his words; and, as she joked with her coworkers after admitting the crush one day to them, the way he resembled her father. I’m kidding, she would always say. They would shrug and change the subject, all of them young college students with other things on their mind.
Every day after that first morning, the ignition of her infatuation, Steve came in at six sharp and worked on his lap top for one hour. One day, her lips finally unable to stay shut due to the chemistry building behind them, she asked, “What are you working on?”
He smiled, his steady gaze flickering over her dark hair and eyes, and said, “Grad school applications.” Another day she would find out he wanted to go to the University of Minnesota because his father had. “I mean, it’s sort of expected, you know?” He said more things about his father but she could not remember the details, concluding only that the man was somehow magnificent and to be emulated. She was too distracted by his hair, his eyes, his ears, even, to listen closely to the words he spoke. His ears curved in a way that made her want to touch them, and paint them.
One morning he asked her how long she had worked at the café. “Just a few years,” she said, while preparing his drink, a soy mocha, what he always got. “I’m actually an artist.”
“Oh?” His smile faded a brief moment but came back after he took a sip of the coffee. “Delicious. Most delicious soy mocha in the city.”
She almost giggled but withheld, smiling lightly at him instead. “Yeah, I mean. I do portraits and things.” She looked at the counter, flicking at something, thinking how actually handsome he really was. And intelligent. See how he smiles, see how kind he is, a voice kept saying. Her parents would be pleased.
“Sort of hard to be an artist, right?” he said, his face pressed into a puzzled expression.
“Oh, yeah, I mean. It’s kind of just for fun, I suppose.” She wanted him to look at her, and she wanted him to ask her to dinner. She wanted him to touch her, so she slid her hand an inch toward him on the counter. It was not enough for him to notice. Infatuation, she kept thinking to herself, letting herself feel the pure pleasure of it. Love, she thought. The two boyfriends, also artists, she had dated in college were nothing like this man.
“See you,” he said and took his coffee to his table.
She and Steve married the following summer. Steve began PhD work at the university, and Jess took a job in the development office of an evangelical non-profit organization at the behest of her father, who knew the executive director. It was a successful non-profit, and the job was better paying with better benefits and better hours than her previous job at the coffee shop, and her silly job as a freelance studio artist, Jess clarified with alacrity to her geographically scattered friends via email, text and voicemail, and one day to Sydney, her best friend from college, over coffee at The Raven.
Sydney was about to fly to China, where she would teach English for two years. Jess spoke to her and watched as her friend’s eyes wandered high while she sipped her mug of coffee. They settled back on Jess’s face. “You loved working here, I thought,” Sydney said, setting the mug down with a clunk.
Jess shrugged, feeling a weight over her shoulders. A deep exhaustion had recently found home there and never left, no matter how long she slept. “Love is a strong and complex word.”
“You wanted to open your own coffee shop, I thought,” Sydney said, leaning forward.
“You wanted to paint,” Sydney said, pushing a napkin aside.
Jess rolled her eyes and laughed. “I will. It’s a great hobby.” She rubbed her thumb against her coffee cup. “Are you excited about China?”
Sydney leaned back. “Yeah, but nervous, of course.” Jess watched as her friend twirled a piece of her hair, which ran in streaky blond strings over her shoulders. She had always worn her hair long, kept it simple. And the tattoos—had Sydney gotten another? Perennial flowers spread generously down her friend’s arm. For some reason she felt jealous of the tattoos, even though she had no particular desire to have one herself.
“Whaddya thinking?” Sydney asked.
“You went blank.”
“Oh, nothing. Going to miss you, I guess.” Jess placed a hand on her stomach, which had begun to twist and cramp and feel sour. Was her period coming on so soon?
“I’ll miss you, too, pal,” Sydney said with a smile. She flew out a few days later and had not returned. Last Jess heard she was dating a German or an Australian, and they were teaching in one country and then another, and they had some vague plans to attend graduate school together.
Jess opened her eyes again and stared out the window, watching the trees in their steadfast stillness, never wavering, never complaining, simply living without regret of any kind. A tear came into her eye, and when it ran down her face it caused a tickling sensation she wished badly to erase with a scratch she could not manage.
Jess felt the sweat beading on her face when next she woke up.
“Jess?” It was her mother. “Look, she’s moving again.”
Her father was saying from somewhere in the background of the room, “We’re going to get rid of this, Jess. Don’t worry.”
“Honey, how are you feeling?” Steve crouched beside her bed, looking into her eyes. His eyes were lucid, and filled with the knowledge he spent hours imbibing every day; the knowledge that was more important to him than she was. The realization struck her hard, and her wings shuddered, shaking the bed. “Shit,” she muttered, but no one understood her.
“It’ll all be over soon, honey,” Steve said. “You’re going into surgery tomorrow, to get those things removed. They tried to stop it when they were small, but they grew like weeds.” His lucid eyes dropped away from her.
There was a smear of black shame in his eyes. She had never seen that before. “What are they?” she asked, desiring that he say the word wings.
“Whatever it is,” Steve replied with the click in his jaw, “It’ll all be over soon.” He leaned forward and touched her forehead with his lips and stood.
He was mortified by their situation. It almost made her chuckle. She closed her eyes and saw words swimming languidly in various hues of orange and red as she said, “I want coffee.”
He stroked her forehead. “I don’t think so, Jess.”
“Give it to me, now,” Jess said, trying to lift her head.
“Come on, Jess. Be reasonable,” he said, shaking his head.
She heard him walk away, to the far end of the room. He muttered something.
“It’ll be fine, Steve,” she heard her father say.
There was a slap on a table. “No, it won’t.”
“Shhh, Steve,” her mother said.
Jess kept her eyes closed and settled her cheek back into the pillow. She too wanted it all over, all of it, and she wanted to start over. She would return to The Raven and get a large mocha, The Raven’s signature drink, swirling thick in a wide round mug, made with chunks of dark chocolate and topped with a dollop of whipping cream, and while drinking it, she would begin painting a great mural all over the walls, a mural of large wings with blood on them, faces of people with hands smashed on their cheeks, of grinning and of frowning, and of birds, countless numbers of birds filling the mural’s sky.
She opened her eyes to see a nurse adjusting her medicine. She closed them again. The weekend before she had gone to a café near her house. She had gotten a mocha, which was not even comparable to the mochas at The Raven in her opinion, and she had settled into a corner table when a large, elderly woman, or perhaps she had not been a large woman at all and it was just the multiple skirts she wore that made her appear large, asked if she could join her.
Jess looked up, annoyed, and wondered if the woman was crazy. There were plenty of empty tables.
The elderly woman smiled and her eyes widened slightly, showing off unsightly yellow irises that made Jess wince.
She must be wearing contacts to have those crazy eyes, Jess thought as she studied her. Wrinkles like thrown-away tissue paper covered the woman’s face; and her hair, at least what was left of it, was fastened into a tiny bun with two bobby pins. The top of the cane she was leaning on was a leering wolf face.
Jess cursed her Midwestern breeding as she switched to a smile and pointed generously at the chair. “Why not,” she muttered. The woman would perhaps make an excellent portrait subject, Jess told herself. Maybe she could get money and an interesting portrait opportunity out of this.
“Thank you,” the woman said as she settled in. “You’re a soy person?”
Jess was just about to sip her coffee but set it down in surprise. “How do you know it’s soy?”
“I can smell it.”
The woman shifted her position and tipped her chin up. “Yes. But why do you like soy?” She sipped her coffee and then wiped her lips with the back of her tissue paper hand.
“I just like it. Sort of nutty.” Jess frowned a moment and peered into the cup. She had begun drinking soy after finding out Steve was lactose intolerant.
Jess felt her face tense. “Who are you?”
The woman took a swig, not a sip, of her drink. When she set the mug down again and looked up at Jess, whipped cream and brown foam clung to her whiskered lips. “It’s hard to get a perspective on things.”
“What do you mean?” Jess started to look around the room.
The woman sighed as if expelling air from her lungs for the last time. “It’s hard to get a perspective on things when you can’t see your life from the outside.” She leaned forward. “But luckily, I can see yours, and I know exactly what you need.”
“I think I need to go,” Jess said. She wondered if the woman was from a cult. She looked down at her half-drunk mocha, which she had paid nearly five dollars for.
The woman rubbed the wolf head, mimicking its smile. “I’ve given you something that will help you, my dear. Trust me.”
Jess frowned skeptically at the woman. Steve would be angry if he found out she let this woman sit with her. Sitting here with a woman too old, with too many wrinkles and ugly eyes, with too many skirts of different colors, with a blouse that fit poorly, pulling across the massive but flattened chest of the woman. Jess could hear what her mother would say, or not say, because her mother would not actually say anything. It would be a look or a tick in her face. Disapproval is what the nonverbal movements would say. Distasteful, and dangerous, perhaps.
“I put the wings potion into your drink,” the woman was saying. “They’ll sprout in, oh, I’d say a week. Expect soreness and a lot of pain.” The woman threw a napkin into her empty mug and stood.
Jess felt blood rushing to her head. “What did you say?” She heard “potion” and “drink.”
“Take care of it, please,” the woman said, gesturing toward her mug and napkins.
It must have been the potion’s effect that made her sit still as if hypnotized. She sat locked into the chair, not seeing where the woman had gone, sensing panic at the thought of Steve and what he would say if he found out about this, feeling despondent that she had been so stupid to allow it. The next thing she remembered doing, after awaking in her chair and determining that from the extra cup in front of her someone had in fact been at the table with her, was driving home feeling agitated and sleepy. She proceed to nap all weekend, and a headache, along with sharp knobs of pain in her back, invaded her life the following Monday.
“Jess?” It was Steve again.
She did not reply.
Her family continued to discuss her in murmurs as she fell asleep.
It was morning, and Jess was looking out the window, gazing listlessly at the sun, a burning red orb rising slowly through the trees. Flocks of birds filled the sky, their dark bodies flickering across the sun, their shadows filling her room. She frowned and tried to push herself up on her elbow to get a better look. Why, she wondered, were flocks of birds filling the sky in winter?
A nurse came to check on her and asked if the pain medicine was all right. She mentioned the surgery that would take place later that afternoon.
“What pain medicine?” Jess said, attempting to laugh.
The nurse frowned and adjusted something behind her before leaving again. Jess felt the medicine’s warm tingling sensations swirl around the pain like water around an anchor, surrounding and drowning it, but ultimately doing nothing to get rid of it.
The nurse left and Jess tried again to get up on her elbow, succeeding this time. She looked back and saw two large appendages, wrapped tightly in cords like a meat roast, sweeping down the length of her body past her feet. She lay down, her arm shaking, and watched an endless mass of birds spreading across the sky. She felt something stir in her chest as she watched them. For a moment she imagined they were actually people, or the souls of people, escaping into the sun like the young man in the myth she read once. Icarus was his name, she recalled. He had wanted to go into the sun, but his wings, having been made of wax, melted as he approached. What did it actually mean, she wondered. Was it good or bad to fly?
“I wouldn’t go for the sun,” she said. The birds streamed like a black river in her eye, clouding her vision and filling her heart with a lust—yes, she thought, lust—to be free and to fly. Saliva began dripping from her lip as she continued staring at the birds with an open mouth, the lust inside her growing to an intensity that frightened her. A rippling pins and needles sensation, the same kind that would take hold of her foot if she let it fall asleep, spread into her back and new limbs, enlivening her muscles and mind, prompting her to slide her hands beneath her and push herself up. She laughed and snorted as she looked down at her body, repulsed and delighted at the size of her pectoral muscles, larger than any Olympic male gymnast’s chest.
Jess crawled down the length of the bed, trying not to cry out from the tenderness she felt in the wings. She stood and braced herself against the bed railing, waiting for her legs to become steady under her new weight.
“Phaw!” she shouted. The cords snapped at once, and her wings swept open with a terrific smack against all that was in the room: chairs, monitors, tables, TV, flowers. Anything not fixed into place they swept away in one cacophonous movement.
The window beckoned her but she could not open it. She went to the door and opened it and went out, her wings scraping against the frame, spraying feathers in all directions. She ran down the hallway, hitting nurses and doctors, visitors and the sick, all of them screaming and hollering at the sight of the wings, sounds which merged into the soundtrack of her escape.
Jess rushed to the stairwell door and threw it open, gliding down the steps in a cloud of feathers and blood, shouting with glee, not wondering what anyone else was thinking about her, she thinking only of the sky and flight from that place. She threw the door to the outside open and ran with a speed she never thought possible to have, stopping only when she reached the railing at the edge of the cliff overlooking the river. She leapt onto the railing, her bare feet gripping its icy surface, inhaling the cold air fully into her nostrils and lungs, her body tottering a moment as her wings swept out to steady her. This is it, she thought, gazing at the wet ravine below and up at the birds covering the sun.
With arms spread, she flung herself into the air, shouting in joy and terror, becoming the large and invincible creature she had always wanted to be.
Jess heard two snaps, and agony unlike any she had experienced before eclipsed all other inclinations and sensations of her mind and body. The wings had come off from her and she was falling. When she looked up, she saw her wings, two small and withered things, hovering aimlessly above her.
“Jess, wake up. I can see that you’re moving.”
Jess opened her eyes and saw she was in their bedroom. Steve was crouching beside the bed, looking at her. He smiled.
“What’s going on?” There was a cast around her torso up to her neck, with two holes for her arms.
Steve squeezed her hand. “A bad accident, Jess. You were drugged by that woman at the café. You tried to bike home and got hit by a truck.” He squeezed her hand again, hard. “We’re so lucky, Jess.” He blinked and pressed his lips together into a straight line. “Do you remember any of it?”
Jess tried to sit but Steve prodded her back down. She looked at him. “A truck?” She remembered something awful, something involving a river, a balcony, and a hospital.
“It’s okay, Jess. You’re fine, now.”
“How long have I…?”
“I need to give you something, Jess.”
“Give me what?” she asked, feeling her heart palpitate as she watched him hold out a pill.
Steve chuckled and shook his head. “Medicine to help you with pain, Jess.” He paused and tucked a piece of her hair from her face. “What else would it be?” His frown looked melancholy.
Jess closed her eyes and opened her mouth, the pain having begun its sweeping presence over her body as she became more awake. Steve placed the pill on her tongue and helped her take a sip of water.
He caressed her head. “It’ll be okay.”
“Steve, how long have I been here?”
He continued to caress her head. “Awhile, but it’s fine, honey. We talked to your supervisor at work, and he knows, and it’ll be fine.”
Jess was thinking of painting now, and wanted to paint a picture of Steve’s head with black charcoal all around it, his eyes narrowed and gray, his lips pressed into their perpetual straight line. She would call it, “Modern Man with Dis-ease.” She opened her mouth and spoke again in a whisper, “I don’t want to go back to that job.”
“You’re going through a lot,” he said. “Don’t worry about it right now.”
Jess found herself smiling at him. “I want to paint.”
Steve’s caressing stopped and he stood, rubbing his face. “You can always paint, Jess.” He turned away and stood at the window. “But everybody’s got to work.” He turned to look at her, and she wanted to see softness in his eyes, any sort of pleading that would induce her to be on his side. Instead she saw only flat hues of gray and white, and the lips pressing again into a severe line across his face.
Jess licked her lips and tried to sit up again, to present herself more clearly to him, but the pain prevented the movement. She fell limply on her side and felt tears accumulating at the edges of her eyes. Steve left, shutting the door behind him. She lay in silence, listening to a clock ticking somewhere, and to the wind slapping twigs against the window. It felt as if her limbs were filled with rocks and sand. “Sit up,” she finally told herself, and she sat up. The door opened, and she turned to see her mother, her face covered with a moue, her hands crossed against her chest.
“What are you doing?” her mother asked.
“I need to get some air,” Jess said.
“You need to rest, Jess.”
Jess stood and went to the window, the pain nearly crippling her as she moved.
Her father came to the door. “Get back in bed, Jess,” he said with a low, vibrating voice.
Jess turned to look at them. They stared at her with frowns running across their faces, blending into each other as if they were one. Another painting, Jess thought. The parental face that looked forever down at her, the child.
“What really happened?” she asked. Images of mud, of water and ice, and of the sky began to shift across her memory.
“I’m sorry that it hurts,” her mother said, stepping forward. “You were hit by a car, Jess.”
“Hit by a car,” Jess repeated. “Hit by a truck. Hit by a car.” She pressed a hand on her forehead, and under the weight of the medicine or the pain or whatever else, she did not know what, she felt herself sinking back into the bed against her will. The bed felt good, soft and warm and gentle against her body. There was murmuring and then the door shut and Jess sighed in relief. She stared at the sunlight on the wall and the images of faces continued to flash through her mind one after another in grays, browns, yellows. It was like she was in a theater. Then a bird’s shadow flitted across the wall.
Jess felt a tingling spread from the two burning points of pain on her shoulder blades. It was familiar, that feeling. She gazed out the window and saw an empty sky, pale and sunken, not a bird in sight. Then she gasped.
The wings! They were growing back.
Jess bit her lip until it bled.
by C. Erickson
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