“Do you ever think about flying?” Julie asks him. She’s got her toes tucked up under Chris’s leg, and he shifts and tries to ignore them.
“I guess.” He runs a hand through his greasy brown hair and tucks a hank behind his ear. His voice is rough because he’s trying so hard not to think about the heat of her feet under his thigh. It’s working, mostly. “I bet everyone does sometimes.” He tosses back a slug of her father’s beer. The can is cold and sweating. He rolls it across his forehead.
“Yeah.” She stands and walks a few feet down the dirt driveway, leaving him sitting alone on the porch steps staring at her back. “Maybe. But I want it bad.” She raises her arms as if they are wings. He thinks she will flap them, but she doesn’t, choosing instead to let the wind blow her shirt against her body.
It’s hot, and Julie sweats half-moon patterns beneath her arms and an arrow down her spine, making the red of her tank darker. Chris can smell her, but it’s a good smell-–his deodorant that she had slicked on earlier that day. They’d been in his room together, but nothing had happened between them. She is always careful that way. She never teases. Still, Chris likes that Julie smells like him.
“I’m going to do it, you know. One day, I’m going to just be gone, and no one will know where I went.” She turns to him, and her blue eyes meet his brown. “But you’ll know. You’ll say, ‘She went flying,’ and everyone will wonder.”
He listens to her with his cheek resting on his curled fist, the beer dangling from two fingers. Her words poke and prod at him until he sits up and takes notice. There, on her father’s gray, slanting porch with its missing and snaggle-toothed boards, he realizes he doesn’t want Julie to fly. He wants to pin her to the sun-baked earth so she can never escape him. He wants to love her, but more than that, he wants to keep her.
Julie stares at him. He blinks, realizing he’s lost the thread of the conversation. The now-empty beer can is crushed in his fist. “What?” he says.
“I said, I think about it all the time. Being a bird. Flying.” She turns away from him again and lowers herself to the driveway. She’s careful about pulling her hair over her shoulder so that she doesn’t sit on it. It’s brassy red and reminds him of a hothouse flower.
“Why do you want to fly?” He knows it’s a stupid question. “Are you looking to escape?”
Julie leans back on her elbows and tilts her head so that she is looking at him upside-down. She is silent for a heartbeat, and then she closes her eyes. “Nah. I just want to sleep in trees.”
The next time Chris sees her, Julie’s eye is blackened.
He wants to flutter around her and touch the discolored skin, but when he reaches for her, she bats his hands away and laughs. “Stop it. So I got in a fight. It happens.” She walks next to him down Main Street, her dirty flip flops scuffing the pavement.
“Do you need me to take care of anyone?” Although he’s good at it, Chris hates fighting. He hates the dark smudge of color around Julie’s eye more.
She halts and cocks her head. He is taken by the motion, by the curious nature of it. Julie pats him on the cheek. “No. Thanks, though.”
They continue in silence to the multiplex where he pays for both of them because she has no money, and it’s the only place to get out of the choking humidity. Chris knows buying her ticket doesn’t mean anything, and the feeling that settles in the back of his throat is almost worse than the heat outside.
He buys her a Coke and a hotdog from the concession stand because he’s sure she hasn’t eaten today. “Where’s your dad?”
Julie breathes through her nose as she chews, and it’s clear to Chris that she’s starving. She swallows and rolls her eyes. “Who cares? At work probably. Or drunk in a gutter somewhere.”
“So, did he?” He gestures to the black eye, and then tucks his arm back across his narrow chest, obscuring the band logo on his over-sized tee.
The look she gives him is enough to shut him up.
She takes another bite and groans, “This is so good. Thanks for the hotdog.” Swallowing the last bit, she wipes her mouth on a paper napkin and throws the cardboard platter and the mustard-smeared napkin in the trash. “Come on. Movie’s about to start.”
She is silent when everyone else laughs and laughs when everyone else screams. Chris tries very hard to work up the courage to hold her hand, but in the end, he doesn’t have to. She curls her fingers around his arm with a gasp when the main character startles a flock of birds from a tree, and they take wing.
His mouth twists. Not like this, he thinks, but doesn’t remove her hands from where they’ve curled around his pale bicep.
Julie goes missing for a while, but Chris isn’t worried because she does that sometimes. He spends those summer hours like he knows he has thousands more in front of him. First, he plays video games until he’s got a headache. Then, after he eats three bowls of chocolate cereal, he takes a shower. He stares at his naked body in the mirror. He puffs up his skinny chest and flexes his muscles.
He pouts that he has a spot on his ass.
Wonders when he’ll get chest hair.
Debates whether or not his dick is a sufficient size.
Handles said dick until satisfied.
He drinks every day; not enough to get drunk, just enough to float on a buzz while he tries not to think about Julie and the way she felt against him in the movie theater.
His mother disapproves of his sloth and shakes her head. Her thin, white-blonde hair is liberally streaked with gray, and she has pulled it into a bun the size of a walnut at the base of her skull. The bobby pins holding it together are dark against her ivory hair like the sharps and flats on a piano keyboard. Her voice is weak and tired and easily ignored, but when he’s finally sick enough of her nagging, he decides to go find Julie.
He jogs to her house.
Chris climbs up the old metal stairs that snake from the side of her porch up to her bedroom. They are the remnant of her father’s brief-lived plan to convert the second floor into an apartment for some ready cash. He never finished renovating the upstairs, but the old fire escape remains like a rusty scar on the side of the house.
He calls for Julie, but she doesn’t answer. He looks in her window, and he doesn’t see her.
After debating with himself, he picks his way across the rotted porch and knocks on the front door.
Chris has never met her father, but he fears him. Although Julie has never pointed a finger, the bruises she often wears assure him the man is capable of violence.
He knocks and the door opens, revealing a handsome older man with red-rimmed eyes. The smell of whisky clings to his skin, his once-neat button down is stained with grease, and the shirttails are only half-tucked. The man sways gently on his feet, but his voice is grizzled with worry when he says, “You seen my girl?”
“No.” Chris watches him drag hands covered in yellowed nicotine stains over his chin, prickling with several days of beard. “I was hoping she was here with you.”
“Ain’t seen her for more’n a week. Don’t have the heart to look for her.” Julie’s father crosses his arms over a still-slender belly.
“More than a week?” She has never gone missing for more than a few days before. Chris is furious. He wants to shove his curled fist into that weak jaw or grab him by the shirt and shake him until he starts caring. “Julie hasn’t been home for more than a week, and you haven’t gone to look for her?”
The older man blinks, drink-addled, and tries to focus on the young man. “Just like her mother, that girl. One day, I’ll look for her, and she’ll just be gone.” He opens his hands and looks surprised that they are empty. “Gone.”
It’s too much for Chris. He stumbles back, all of his worst case scenarios choking him and causing the hair on his nape to prickle.
Julie’s father catches and steadies him, overwhelming Chris with his body odor and the smell of stale cigarette. He pats the boy absently on the shoulder and says, “You see my daughter, you tell her to come on home. It’s not time for her to go yet.”
And then he’s gone. The door shuts in Chris’s face.
He walks to the trailer that houses the town library.
He walks to the multiplex.
He walks to the schoolyard, abandoned in the heated lull of summer.
He walks past the garage where her father works now and again for liquor and cigarette money.
Chris despairs, but still he searches for her. When he finds her, it is sunset, and he thinks she is dead. Julie lies on her back in a stream in a strip of woods next to the high school. She is topless, and the shadows cast by the fading, dappled light make her skin look corrupt with rot. Her red hair is tangled with the weeds waving in the running water.
Her eyes flutter open at his cry, and she crosses her arms over her chest. “Chris,” she says, her voice thick.
“Oh my god, Julie. What’s going on?” He takes his shirt off and covers her with it. The stream is up to his ankles, and he crouches down to pick her up, his arms beneath her shoulders and knees.
“No, no,” she says and tries to push him away. She screams when he touches her shoulder blades, and when he pulls back, his hand is covered in blood and pus.
The gore disgusts him, and he shakes his hand, speckling both of their faces with bits of red. He gags and swallows. “Oh my god. Oh my fucking god. What the fuck happened to you?”
Julie doesn’t answer. Fever flushes her entire body, and she succumbs to the drag of unconsciousness.
With care, he starts to flip her so he can see her back, cradling her chin in his palm so that she doesn’t choke in the water. His stomach is roiling. He doesn’t want to look, but he loves her, and he needs to know if he should go back and kill her father.
“Oh, shit,” he breathes and nearly drops her.
Two large, triangular mountains of flesh and bone extend from her spine nearly to her shoulders and all the way down to the dimples on either side of her low back. The skin is weeping blood and pus. The smell of infection crawls up his nose and into the back of his throat. He reaches out and touches a ribbon of flesh that stretches from her left shoulder blade to her spine.
It sloughs off beneath his fingers, tearing like tissue paper.
He does drop her then, and she whimpers. He holds up a shaking hand. There in his palm, sticky with drying blood, is a small black feather.
He lays her on her belly next to the streambed, protecting her heated skin from the ground with his shirt. She doesn’t stir, but the protrusions on her back quake beneath his eyes and fingers.
He hates to leave her, but he is forced home for provisions. He runs fast, as fast as he’s ever run, and when he sprawls next to her again, he has a new shirt on and a bag clutched in his hands. His heart pounds and sweat drenches his body. Julie hasn’t moved.
He shakes her. “Wake up. I don’t know what to do.” He has stolen his mother’s cell phone, and he clutches it in his hand. His thumb hovers over the 9. “Should I call for help? Julie, wake up.”
She groans, and his heart lightens.
“Julie, should I call for help?” He fears what will become of her if they take her to the hospital, and the doctors see what are surely wings bursting from the skin of her back, but she needs help, and soon.
“No, no. I’m almost done. Almost there, Chris,” she pants and claws for his hand. “Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”
And he’s so angry that she’d ask him to stay when she is the one who will leave. He understands that it is inevitable now, but he pinches his lips tight and strokes her hair away from her sharp chin. With gentle fingers, he lifts a strand from between her lips. “You need medicine, Julie. You’re really sick. God knows what you caught from that stream bed. Don’t you know that water’s dirty?”
“I couldn’t stay with Pop for this, and I was burning, burning.” She licks her lips. “So thirsty. Chris?”
He pulls a bottle of water from his bag and lifts her face. With her lying on her stomach, the angle is challenging, and most of it spills from her mouth, but Julie just smacks her lips and closes her eyes.
Chris sits back on his heels and drags his hand over his face. “All right.” He covers his eyes with his palms and sighs. “All right. I’ll take care of you.”
The fire he builds is boy-scout perfect and ringed with stones. He warms his mother’s chicken noodle soup. Julie only eats a couple of bites before she falls asleep, her face cradled in his palm.
A curious lump in his throat, he leans down and presses his lips to her hothouse hair.
He sleeps with his back against a tree. His knees are tucked to his chest, and his face is pressed between them. He hadn’t meant to sleep, but he had watched Julie through the long night until the sky had begun to brighten. The trees cast shadow-bruises on her skin in the early morning light. He had put his head down for just a moment and fallen asleep.
Julie screams, and he jolts awake, heart pounding. He stumbles to her side and falls to his knees, unable to do anything but watch her writhe in pain.
Her hands scrabble in the earth, churning up broken, dead leaves and the red clay from the streambed. Her shrieks are the high pitched whistles of a bird of prey. The masses on her back shudder, oozing fresh, clean blood. Chris can see wing shapes twitching beneath her skin.
When they finally break through, the violence shocks him. Her wings, black and bloody, dotted with gobbets of flesh, erupt from her back and unfurl, stretching towards the sky like a half-drowned swimmer gasping for air. They tremble, and then fall under their own weight, one landing across Chris’s lap.
It is enormous, longer than he is tall when fully opened, and it steams in the cool morning air. Julie is gasping and sweating.
Her fever has broken.
He moves to examine her back; he expects the worst. He believes he will see exposed muscle, but he is surprised that the skin around her wings is perfect and lovely. On top of the healthy, glowing flesh are torn, bloodied scraps of skin. He touches one, and it falls away from her body as if it were a cocoon.
His hands shake as he helps her shed her old self, strip by strip. He is covered in her blood.
Julie stirs. Her arms pillow her head, and her face turns to look at one of her massive wings. “Chris, look at them. Finally.” Her eyelids flutter, and she yawns. “Thank you.”
He sits down heavily and lets his bloodied hands rest on the ground. “Of course.” He picks at his nails, removing bits of things best left unidentified. He wants to die.
Instead, he takes a deep breath and pulls over his bag. Inside are his mother’s best towels. He wets one with a bottle of water and swipes it down her back, removing the signs of her chrysalis and birth.
With a bitter smile, he wraps a washcloth around his hand and cleans her wings, feather by feather.
Julie sits and looks to the North.
She kisses him, and it’s hot and sweet; the best thing he’s ever tasted. She is wearing his tee, the tips of her black wings dragging on the ground behind her. They are free and drying, spread wide in the summer air, because he’s taken his pocket knife and cut two long slits in the back of his favorite shirt.
She is feeling better after resting for several hours, he can tell. There is color in her face again. He allows himself to stroke his thumb over the apple of her cheeks and marvel at her freckles.
“Thank god you found me,” she says and then kisses him again, her lips wrapping around his cupid’s bow. “I thought I wasn’t going to make it.” She pulls back and combs her fingers through his hair.
Chris is overwhelmed by her proximity. He leans forward and places his nose and lips in the crook of her neck and inhales her scent. “I’ll always find you.”
Julie stills. “I’m sure you’ll try.” And then she is on his lap, wrapping them both in her wings which still smell of blood. “You know, don’t you? I don’t have to say it, do I? The way I feel about you?” she whispers in the darkness of her feathers.
She twines her arms about his neck and licks his answer from his mouth, and then her hands are beneath his shirt and moving to the buckle of his pants, and Chris forgets that she never actually said she loved him, and she never actually said she’d let him keep her.
And breathless moments later, moments filled with electric touches and widened eyes, when Julie’s head tilts back and her wings clap out behind her, the tips touching and trembling with pleasure, Chris allows himself to feel hope.
When she comes back to herself, Julie looks North.
When Chris comes back to himself, he looks nowhere but at the girl in his arms.
“These really are lovely.” He runs a finger down the topline, amused at the way they twitch. “Think you can fly?”
“Soon,” she says. Her chin digs into his chest, but Chris doesn’t complain. “They’re still weak, but soon I think.”
“How are you going to hide them?”
“Why would I hide them?” She yawns and cuddles closer.
He smiles at her innocence. “So, what? You planning on walking around town with them swishing about in plain sight?” He tugs a lock of her hair and then laughs. “You’d have trouble shopping in stores. Every time you turn around, you’ll knock someone over.”
She pushes up and straddles his hips, looking him in the face. Her head cocks like a bird. “Chris, I’m not going back into town. I can’t.”
He sits up and wraps his arms around her waist. “I guess that makes sense. I can get a job as soon as we graduate. I’ll get us everything we need.” He’s already enamored of the idea. He remembers stroking each and every plume on her back clean. “I like taking care of you, Julie.”
Her face is still as she watches him plan their future. “I’m going North as soon as I can fly. I feel a tug. I think I’m supposed to follow it.”
“You’re what?” he says. His dreams crumble into ash and offal. The red smell of her wings turns his stomach, and he pushes her off his lap, scrambling for his clothes. “Even after we—you’re leaving?” His hands shake as he buttons his pants. “Was this a pity fuck, Julie?”
She turns her eyes to the ground. “No, of course not.”
“Oh my god. You did. You pity fucked me.” Chris covers his mouth with a hand and concentrates on the feeling of his heart trying to climb out of his chest.
“Never. I love you,” she says, but she is looking North again.
Chris leaves her there in the forest. Julie doesn’t move. She sits naked in the dappled sunlight, her face turned toward a place he cannot follow.
He pines for her for two months before she calls him. It’s just as well she waited that long. He’s been grounded for stealing and losing both his mother’s favorite set of towels and her cell phone.
Her voice crawls across the line, tentative. “Will you come visit me? I’m leaving soon.”
“So, you’ve done it? You’ve flown?” he asks. He is curious, despite himself.
“Yes.” She sounds flushed with pride. “I can make it from the roof to the ground back to the roof.” Julie pauses. “You’ll come?”
“Of course. When could I ever stay away from you?”
“You’ve managed pretty well for the last two months.”
Chris hears the reproach and clenches his jaw. “You know why. You know why, Julie.”
“I do.” A breath. “I’ll be waiting for you on the fire escape.”
And she is. Fearsome with her wings spread, she’s nearly unrecognizable as she crouches on the railing.
As he approaches, Julie’s wings beat the air, and she gives a powerful leap into sky, her body twisting as she struggles to catch the wind.
And she does it.
She coils up through the air, sketching lazy spirals around her house. There is joy sparking through each tense and tethered muscle that is visible even from the ground. Chris has never seen her like this before, and again he struggles with the desire to pin her to the earth and keep her. Why can she not feel the same joy in his arms?
A crash echoes from the house, and her father throws himself out the door on the porch. “Nooo,” he howls. “Come back here.” His hands tear at his salt-and-pepper hair.
She flutters down, bringing her feet beneath her with powerful backdrafts of her wings. She lands with dainty grace on the railing of the landing, halfway down the stairs.
“Julie-girl, you ain’t ready yet. It’s not time for you to be flying.” He starts up the steps to her, and she hops down from the railing to wait for him.
“Pop,” she says, her tone long-suffering. “I’ve got to build up my muscle strength. That means I’ve got to practice.” She smiles then. “Did you see me? I’m getting pretty good. It’ll be time to go soon.”
“No, you’ve got ages yet.” Her father’s face shows the ravages of an old grief. “You’ve got loads of time; least a year before you are up to any kind of long distances.” He reaches her on the landing of the pitted fire escape and stretches out to hold her hand.
With a puzzled expression, she allows it. “I don’t think so. I should leave in a couple of days. The pull to the North is getting stronger all the time.”
Chris reaches the bottom of the staircase. There are ten steps between them. He can smell the whisky even at that distance.
“Pop, you’re hurting me. You’re holding me too tight.”
“You listen here, girl. I’m your father, and I say you ain’t ready. You can go next year, when you’re eighteen.” His voice is brusque, and he does not let go of Julie’s wrist.
She tries to pull away and cannot. “Let me go, Pop.”
The older man’s jaw clenches, and he plants his feet for better leverage against Julie’s tugs. He raises a hand and slaps her on the cheek, and her head rocks back so that just for an instant, she faces Chris. A trickle of blood drips from the corner of her mouth.
Her wings snap out. She leans away from him, battering him with her pinions.
Chris watches it happen, seemingly in slow motion. Stunned by the power of her attack, her father falls back and releases her. She loses her balance and falls backwards down the steps. In the confined space between the house and the railing, Julie is unable to bring her wings to bear.
There are only ten steps. The fall won’t kill her, but she will land on a pinion. They are powerful but fragile, strong muscle wrapped around hollow bird bones. It will surely break, and she will be forced to stay.
He watches, knowing he has a choice. She tumbles, flashes of black scraping against the house, against the railing. Her wings flap and buffet the air.
He can still catch her. He reaches out. He almost has her. His fingers brush her hair… No. She is his. Julie gave herself to him that day in the woods, and now she is trying to leave him.
So, he steps aside. She lands hard, the crunch of bone shocking. Sobbing, one of her great, black wings crooked, she does not stare to the North.
Julie looks at him. He can see she knows.
A week’s worth of healing and a bandage around her damaged wing, and then Julie takes her father’s truck and points it toward the North. She does not ask permission. She does not say goodbye. There is no note left for him in her room. She just leaves.
Chris sits on her porch with her father drinking a beer. It is warm, but he drinks it anyway.
“Will she ever come back?” He hates himself for asking.
“Her mother never did. Had the baby, kissed me and Julie, and then took off for good.”
“You ever look for her?”
“Nah. Ain’t got wings, do I?” Her father stares out over the driveway.
Chris is silent while he picks apart the snarl of his feelings, taking another swallow of beer. He is confused. What madness overcame him as he saw her tumbling down those steps? What selfishness stole his reason when he saw the joy she took in flight?
And God—that look. She knows what he did, and it breaks him.
“I love her,” Chris says at last.
The older man offers him a cigarette. He considers it for just a second, before remembering the slap of a rough hand against Julie’s face. He sees the red drip of blood down her chin again. Chris waves the cigarette away. He doesn’t want to be anything like this man.
It’s too late to undo the damage he’s already done, but he can choose not to follow this path. He can choose to put down the beer. He can choose to stand and walk off the porch. He can choose to follow her.
“Where are you going?”
Taking a deep breath, Chris cocks his head. “North.”
Kristy Truax-Nichols is an obsessive reader of fiction who loves that she can live a thousand lives through books and still come home for dinner with her exceptionally attractive husband. When not admiring him or reading, she can be found at the stable with her horses. Occasionally she writes.